Saturday, April 30, 2011

Y is for "Yes And"

One of the fundamental rules of improvisational theater (one of my other hobbies) is often referred to as the "yes and" rule. If you are performing in improv comedy, or any other form of unscripted theater and one of your fellow actors gets a scene rolling, or adds to a scene in progress, it is important to run with what they have set up. In improv terms, adding something to a scene is called an offer and it is important to accept that offer. If you don't accept it, the scene may immediately break and/or descend into something completely unintelligible to the audience... a terrible place to be for any actor.

Learning to accept and run with others' offers can be tough. Sometimes you enter a scene thinking, "I'm gonna come in and be the hyperactive little kid" Then just as your stepping on stage, your fellow actor says, "Ah, Old Man Withers! there you are, I was hoping you might help me with some car trouble." Well, you can either shift immediately to Old Man Withers mode which will further the storyline that was just established, or continue to play your original idea and play as the little kid. The latter could very likely cause a break in the audience's suspension of disbelief because they're thinking, "Wait, I thought that was Old Man Withers?"

There is an improv exercise that distills the idea of "yes and" down to its root, in which each of the participants begins every statement with the words yes and.

1: "Hey grandpa, I can't wait to get to the carnival"
2: "Yes, and we're going to stay there all day, Billy"
1: "Yes, and I want to eat tons of cotton candy!"

and so on...

I bring this up because running a tabletop RPG is very similar to performing in improv theater. A GM plays every character not played by one of the players and also orchestrates all of the interaction with the surrounding environment. During a game session, the GM typically has an idea about where he/she wants the session to go. However, this idea is not always apparent to the players, and they may read the clues the GM drops in an entirely different way and attempt to take the game in an entirely different direction. The question is, as the GM, do you accept the players' offer and go in their direction or do you try to convince them to go with your plan as intended? The former can be challenging because it can put the GM into a spot for which he/she is unprepared, can potentially derail the course of the adventure and/or even bypass some of the hours of work the GM put into planning the session. The latter can be challenging because the players can start to feel railroaded (like their choices don't matter) and potentially breaking the fun of the session, and if it happens too much, dissolving the group.

There are a couple tricks a GM can use to say "yes and" to the player's decisions -to help guide the adventure without denying the players their active roles in the way it plays out.

Psychology (make the players think it was their idea):
Earlier I mentioned the potential problem of players ignoring the GM's clues. This can indeed happen. However, if a GM can learn to manipulate his/her description of an adventure to emphasize the important elements, the players will naturally gravitate towards those elements that stick out. Utilizing subtle psychology can help guide the characters in the intended direction without making the players feel steered.

Clues can be anything, from an NPC running up to the players shouting, "Help a dragon is attacking the city! You have to save us!" to less overt, but equally compelling, "You see a column of smoke rising from the far side of town." A cloud of smoke tells the players, "something important is happening over there!" without explicitly stating, "go that way and kill the dragon."

That being said, there is another element of psychology, which can cause this technique to backfire if you don't take it into account. That is, as living creatures, we have a very strong survival instinct. In the above scenario, the players might tell the panicked villager, "no thanks, we're running away because we like our skins to be original recipe... not extra tasty crispy." As a GM, it is always important to take the instinct for self-preservation and the desire to follow the path of least resistance into account when planning a game.

So what happens if the players do decide to run away instead of towards the dragon fight that probably took several weeks to plan? In this case, the GM has a couple other tools at his/her disposal.

Modular encounters:
When designing a game, another trick that can help is to separate the encounters from their specific locations. During planning, the GM might say, I want to have the following things take place:
  1. meet a mysterious stranger who mentions foul creatures stirring in the nearby mountains and rumors of a dragon cult.
  2. Ambush by muggers wearing dark cloaks with a strange symbol on them
  3. Fight with the dragon attacking the town.
By planning what happens without tying it to where it happens, the GM can quickly modify the above encounters to happen in a tavern, on a street, in a shop or really anywhere else the players decide to go during their exploration of the town.

In the above example, the GM could have originally intended the dragon encounter to happen near the column of smoke. However, running with the players' "offer" to run away, the GM quickly decides to plop the dragon right down in their path. They turn a bend to find the great wyrm chuckling and berating the terrified villagers for fleeing from the fires set by its minions. As expected, dinner came right to the dragon's waiting maw.

Actions have consequences:
Another way to handle unexpected player decisions is to accept their offer, but emphasize the ramifications of those choices. If the players run from the dragon, they might get away, but their reputation could be horribly tarnished as people now view them as cowards. Further, there is now a town under the thumb of an evil dragon whose cult suddenly has all the resources of the town armory and treasury at it's disposal. They players may very well find themselves dealing with the dragon encounter again down the road.

Keeping the big picture and the ripple effect of character choices in mind can be tough, but can also be very rewarding. It adds depth to the world, makes the characters feel like their choices matter (for good or ill) and, in the long run, can help the GM modify the way the players think about their characters' actions.

One of the best, and frankly most common situations where "actions have consequences" can be used to good effect is when players drag their feet after meeting the enemy. Say the heroes are assaulting a castle, and the players try to stop between each fight to heal or return to their base camp long enough to regain their spells. By thinking about what the castle's defenders are doing during these delays, the GM can make the case for a quick assault more compelling. If the heroes go in quick, they run into many off-duty guards in their underwear who just managed to grab a sword. If they stop, the guards have time don their armor, turn over tables to make barriers, form into fighting units and even blow the tower-top horn to call for reinforcements. This technique is especially effective if the players are aware of the preparations being made (They hear shouted orders, footsteps and the overturning of tables).

Finally, the "actions have consquences" technique can help in dealing with problem players, or as a former GM of mine said, "chaotic stupid" players -i.e. those people who join a game with only the intention of amusing themselves to the detriment of the gaming group. In a lot of ways, these players are like improvisers who reject others' offers to ensure that they remain in the spotlight. "I'm not Old Man Withers! I'm your crazy niece, Petunia! Watch me do this crazy thing!"

If a GM provides consequences for a chaotic stupid character's antics, he/she can possibly convince the player to behave better, but will more likely just be able to quickly kill off the character and remove the player from the gaming group. My former GM who coined the phrase did just that. Our group was in a puzzle dungeon with paintings that came alive when a character touched them. The chaotic stupid character ran up to an all black painting and slapped his hand on it. Turns out the painting was actually a wall-sized gelatinous cube (like a macro-sized carnivorous amoeba). Stupid had his character light his loin cloth on fire and throw it at the cube. After the rest of the group finished killing it, Stupid takes a running leap into the black void of the painting. Thinking quickly, the GM had him fall into a raging underground river inhabited by a powerful water demon. That player and his character were out of the game after half a session.

Learning to say, "yes, and" to player choices requires a GM to quickly think on his/her feet just as it does in improv. However, the various "yes, and" techniques described above point to one of the ultimate truths that applies equally to a good game session and good improv. When done well, the players and the audience respectively don't know what was planned and what was just pulled out of nowhere.

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