“Don’t Bore Us, Get To The Chorus”– conventional wisdom in the popular music industry, also used as the title of Roxette’s Greatest Hits compilation album.
I’ve blogged before about my Seeds Of Empire campaign. Following our last session over the New Year’s holiday, a problem arose that I had not had to deal with before, in all my 25+ years as a DM. I obviously gave the issue a lot of thought over the next few days, as I had only a couple of weeks to resolve it and get ready for our next session.
Over the last two years (we normally only play once a month), the PCs had been running through what was effectively a dungeon in which each of the levels was based on impure derivatives of the different elemental planes (and the last two on the negative and positive energy planes, respectively). While these had been revealed to be significant to the overall campaign, the players took a lot longer to get through them than I (or they) expected. The idea was excellent and quite original, emphasising different challenges throughout; and I thought that I had anticipated the need for an acceleration, with the longest time being allocated to the early levels (air, earth), getting progressively quicker. The last two levels (positive energy and prime material planes) took only 6 and 5 hours of play, respectively, to complete; the one before it, only 2 eight-hour sessions; and the one before that, only 3 eight-hour sessions. And, while there was some frustration over the pace of progress, that was now in the past, forgotten (at the time) as that significance – shedding light on the backgrounds of some key NPCs and evolving the relationships between them and the PCs – came to light and a lot of seekingly-unconnected plot threads started coming together to form a bigger picture.
In the final scenario, all these microplanes were united to form a new Prime Material plane alongside the original. The next stage of the campaign was to involve a tour through this new plane, discovering what was there and how the populations of the microplane had emerged from the most singular act of creation ever experienced by the PCs, and how they had adapted to their new reality. (Sorry if the language is a bit florid, I’ve just been watching a DVD of The West Wing. It rubs off after a while!)
So here’s the problem. The original concept was great, the encounters (all original, never-before-encountered lifeforms) were entertaining and challenging, and the resolution of the “dungeon tour” had been interesting and even Worth The Wait (according to the players themselves) – but they were all micro-planed out, I could tell. (That’s an essential skill in a GM’s repetoire, the ability to read his players). They needed a change of pace, and instead, they were to be confronted by the biggest planar exploration mission of them all. The ideas had sounded terrific when I first drafted them, but had persisted for too long.
This was not the result of anything I had done, or done wrongly, but because new players had dropped into the campaign, with new PCs and promises to stick around for the long term, had stayed just long enough for the campaign to be expanded to introduce and include them and give their characters their own plot arcs within the overall scheme of things, and had then dropped out (or were dropped out, in one case). No matter how good the idea had been to start with, it had overstayed its welcome as a result.
The issue at hand was how to compress and compact this New World into something that could be dealt with in only a couple of game sessions, and yet still captured all the themes and subthemes that it was supposed to contain, and still conveyed the sense of wonder that the PCs should experience when travelling within it. Originally intended to be four sessions of play, the PCs would only tolerate one or two, in my estimation. How do you do that?
Being a GM involves a lot of different disciplines. There are rules, interpersonal skills, ethics, genre knowledge, simulation dynamics, tactics & strategy, mapmaking, illustration & graphic art, politics, science, history, story structure, narrative composition, and the list just keeps on growing from there. But one of the most fundamental arts to the DMs craft is Communications. The players in a game occupy a unique position in a campaign as both participants and audiance, and it’s easy for the latter role to overshadow the first with bad refereeing, leading to plot trains and other abuses – so much so that these problems are considered a sure sign of bad GMing. But oftentimes, DMs are so busy shying away from any suggestion of a trend towards the problem that the role of the players as audiance is ignored, or forgotten altogether.
It was in this Communications discipline that the solution could be found to my problem, or so it seemed to me. Writers for TV have been developing ways of compressing information to fit stories into arbitrary but fixed parameters ever since the medium began – and that’s an exact parallel with the situation that needs a solution. Most (if not all) of the tenets of media writing adapt readily to a gaming context, one way or another, and a number of them provided the essential tools to solve the problem.
Before you can communicate something, you first have to know what you want to communicate – that’s simple common sense. So, before I could look at how to apply these tools to solve my problem, I had to work out what the information actually WAS that I needed to convey.
- A sense of scale
- A sense of wonder and grandeur
- A seemingly untouched world – a paradise
- A sense of how the nature of the world changed during the merge
- Show that the new world is derivative of the planes absorbed in its creation
- Show how the transition has affected the inhabitants of the microplanes
- Explore the Political, Social, Religious, and Scientific ramifications
- Show that the new world is still a dangerous place
- Clarify the role of the new world in the divine Master Plan
In addition to all of these, I knew that I had certain fixed scenes that were already “written in” to occur, either because they were logically necessary, or because the party were already intending to do them:
a. Entry to the new world
b. Consecrate the world to the gods (erect a temple)
c. Meet the inhabitants / reunite the party
d. First Corruption / First sin
e. Departure, closing the portal
With the problem now defined in specifics, I could get to work on a solution by considering how to apply the tools of communications:
- condensation – make each scene serve more than one purpose.
- illustration – a picture is worth a thousand words. A photograph of some natural wilderness from my collection of clip art, perhaps photoshopped to include some features that the PCs will recognise, will confer 1, 2, 3, and 5. This should be part of scene (a).
- example – one combat, carefully chosen, can make item 5 even clearer and demonstrate 8 at the same time. This could be in any of the scenes, but it makes the most sense if it occurs during the first extended travel – so in between scenes (b) and (c) is the most logical point.
- narration & scene transitions – fade in, fade out, etc – if, immediatly after that one combat, I use narrative to describe the rest of the trip and simply mention other battles briefly, I can describe the entire trip in a paragraph or so of narrative. I can then ‘fade in’ on the next significant scene. The players won’t object if they still get the XP that they would have recieved from those otherwise meaningless battles, in fact they’ll appreciate the brevity. That one combat, if well chosen, can represent a half-dozen encounters. This is therefore part of the introduction to scene (c).
- narrative flashbacks – when the party reach the populated centre (scene c), one of the locals can describe what they experienced during and after the coalescance. That deals with 4, 6, and (partially), 7. But since scene (c) already has a lot of work to do, rolling it into scene (d) makes even better sense.
- analagy, symbolism & metaphor – these are all forms of shorthand to include additional meaning, layered on top of more overt statements. Using these, I can hint at more of 7, and at 9; the former in scene (c), and the latter in scenes (b), (d), and (e).
Using the tools of communication and script-writing, nine plot objectives had now been rolled into 6 scenes, of which 5 were already scheduled to be played through anyway. Each scene now had a set job to do, which would guide me in crafting content for the scene. They were still loose enough that there was no suggestion of a plot train. The sequence is driven by logic, the only possible variation being whether (b) follows (a) or (c) – that’s up to the PCs, but it’s my expectation that it will be early on. So long as I was flexible on that point, everything else was straightforward roleplay.
It was now completely clear exactly what needed to be done in prep work before the next session of play. And all the things that had been giving me major headaches – the need to integrate six seperate geographies, each with their own ecologies and physical laws – had gone away. The scenario had gone from being a mountain of work to being the labour of just one evening.
Never forget the dual roles of the players in a game. They are participants, yes – of equal measure to the DM – but they are also an audiance, and sometimes it can be in the game’s best interests to treat them like one. So long as you don’t pre-empt a decision by them, it can be more rewarding.
For more information on the tricks of the trade when it comes to writing for television, check out DVD extras that feature writers and producers (“The Lord Of The Rings” commentaries and “Babylon 5″ commentaries are excellent), read books on the “making of” TV series and movies (there’s a lot of stuff on Star Trek in this regard, for example), and so on.