Monday, 7 September 2020
RPG Theory: Moments for Taking the New Ball
I'm now going to do something I rarely if ever do: give technical advice, rooted in theory, for making your campaign better.
A long time ago I wrote this, about Ben Bova's advice to novelists: every time your protagonist solves one problem, give him or her two more. This not only ratchets up the tension; it also gives the plot a drive and momentum all of its own.
Often (usually) this happens organically. Indeed, as play goes on it will often be unavoidable. Through the very process of solving one problem, PCs will tend to generate opportunities to create others. Nonetheless, there are certain times during a campaign which you can think of as prime targets for the "two problems for every solution" technique. I have recently been thinking of them as opportunities to 'take the new ball'.
In a test match in cricket, the fielding side gets the opportunity, after 80 overs have been bowled, to change the old ball (soft and relatively slow) for a new one (polished, very fast, and very hard). This is always the moment to look forward to in the rhythms of a test match (which takes 5 days to play), because it has a way of suddenly expediting things in unpredictable ways. It makes it easier for the bowling side to get the batsmen out, but it also makes it easier for the batsmen to score (because the hard ball moves more quickly off the bat as well as out of the bowler's hand). If it's two skilled batsmen who have been batting for a long time and have hence got their eye in, the new ball can dislodge them - or it can allow them to suddenly accelerate the rate of scoring. So taking the new ball can go either way. It can suddenly swing the match in a new direction, out of its established pattern.
There are moments in an RPG campaign like this. These are the moments when new problems can be introduced and the established pattern can be broken. Let's list some:
Back to town: Particularly when the PCs have brought back treasure. This is a natural time for new problems to assert themselves. For instance: the PCs become targets of thieves, or they have to search for somebody to whom to sell a specialist or magical item, or they let slip where they have been and are followed by NPC adventurers who want in on the action, or they sell something to a powerful magician and he binds them to get more for him with a geas, or many other things that will spring to mind, or - better - more than one of these things happens.
Between sessions: This is the DM's thinking time, and he should use it so that, when the next session begins, it has momentum. Maybe when the next session starts, the DM informs the PCs they have all seen the same dream. Maybe at the beginning of the next session they're visited by an old ally who needs their help. Maybe it's when longstanding enemies choose their moment to strike. Whatever: this is a natural break in which the DM can give himself a half-time team talk and come out in the next session with all guns blazing.
Long distance travel: When the PCs are moving across the hexmap, other pieces should be moving elsewhere too. These could be big, seismic campaign-setting level shifts (an earthquake, a volcano, a plague, an invasion, a dragon attack). Or they could be moves by known NPCs (spies, rivals, villains, allies). When the PCs arrive where they are going, or return from a journey, they find out there have been changes while they've been away. They always should.
Night time: Surprisingly effective when the PCs are staying, for instance, at an inn or tavern. In the morning, the barmaid informs them somebody came asking questions about them last night. Or there was a murder in another room. Or, during the night, there's a fire - or enemies come calling.
Think about the maxim: two problems for every solution. (These should be natural consequences of what the PCs have done previously, of course, and there is a fine art to this; whatever happens should seem like the organic consequence of player choice, except for the really unusual event like an earthquake.) Then, think about moments for putting this into effect - the new ball opportunities which inevitable arise during a campaign.
Posted by noisms at 20:23