When In Doubt, Hurt The Bird

The title of this article comes from a mantra that was kicked around the animation and scriptwriting departments of Disney during making of Aladdin, and if you go back and watch Aladdin and its sequels and the TV series, you could get quite drunk if you make a drinking game out of it. Hopefully you don’t shotgun it all at once, because Iago gets harassed quite a bit in the first movie alone.

My reasoning for bringing up this topic is that I have seen so many people talking about how to challenge their characters and how to make things interesting for them. Well, one of my options to fallback on as a gamemaster is to go after the players. Sometimes, this will be physical, having a bounty hunter or assassin come after them directly or other times it will be to pick a person or thing that is close to them and then do something to it, such as having their house get burned down or robbed or have their best friend get kidnapped or murdered. By doing some of these actions, you get the players involved in the story but they are also on a reactionary role as opposed to being proactive, meaning that they are now the ones events are happening to and trying to find out what is going on instead of going out and causing events.

A key point to remember about doing this is that these actions can have an impact on the character sheet, such as in a game of World of Darkness, as they lose a dot in Contacts as their police detective is killed because they leaked information to the PC. If your players are successful in your plot, make sure that when you reward players you give them at least something equal to what they lost. It doesn’t have to be a replacement of the same thing that was taken away, for example, maybe instead of another Contact they gain an Ally of a newspaper reporter who they let break the scoop. Also, note the ‘If they succeed’, as players should be able to fail or at least not achieve a success and still survive. Maybe the big bad of this adventure got away and their friend is still unavenged, giving them drive to clean up the streets further.

To put this in perspective, look at the movie 88 Minutes. It is a reactionary example, as the main character is spending the majority of their time having events happen around them and getting pulled into things as the story unfolds. Other such examples of this include The Maltese Falcon and a lot of other noir genre films. On that same note, Raymond Chandler had once talked about the lack of realism in pulp fiction and said:

This was inevitable because the demand was for constant action and if you stopped to think you were lost. When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand. This could get to be pretty silly but somehow it didn’t seem to matter. A writer who is afraid to over-reach himself is as useless as a general who is afraid to be wrong.

As I look back on my own stories it would be absurd if I did not wish they had been better. But if they had been much better they would not have been published. Source: QuoteInvestigator

So, high action in pulp stories because that was what drove the pulp stories and by having the action jump back up whenever things started to die down kept the reader wanting to know more. This was also popular in the idea of the serial films of the first half of the 20th century, where Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers  or Zorro would be telling a story over multiple weeks and to keep the story interesting you would have action packed sequences throughout sometimes coming from left field because they wanted to keep the story off balance to keep the viewer interested and returning to watch the next serial.

In a game, you could do the same for your players. You can use this action if they are without plot hooks or not acting on any that you have provided them. Sometimes, you can play on their paranoia by just commenting on a mundane change such as their usual drink tastes different or that the bartender looks different, while all that is is because of a different brand of alcohol was mixed in by mistake and while the characters were away the bartender got a haircut. Other times, you may want to actually make it be something serious. If you don’t want to harm the players directly, then you could go after them in other ways, such as they find themselves wanted for murder or there are people around town going out of their way to avoid them. Players will usually be wanting to know the causes of these things as it has an impact on the playing of their character.

The moral of all of this is that adventuring is a dangerous undertaking. There are times that you will anger someone else. They may be stronger than you but don’t see you worth enough effort to slap down right now, so they send a lackey to do it, or it could be the opposite, they are weaker than you and thus want to take you out through non-direct means. One author who talks about some ideas for this is John Wick, game designer who worked on 7th Sea and Legend of the Five Rings. Some people have seen the first chapter and have gotten polarized opinions of hate while others read the book and see that there is something there, if you take the time to look for it. To get past all the hype and good or bad press, so that people get some more understanding of why this sort of advice can be something at least worth looking at, this is exactly what John Wick says a Dirty GM is:

We’re here to talk about GM tricks. Nasty GM tricks that would make Ol’ Grimtooth himself do a double-take. What we are not here for is killing characters. Nobody wants to play with a Killer GM.
But everybody wants to play with a Dirty GM.
Just to make sure you know what I’m talking about, let’s spend a moment or two defining terms. In
some circles—the ones I was educated in—that’s a pretty important step.

A Killer GM is someone who takes glee in destroying characters. He kills them without remorse, without compassion, without care. He does it because he can. Gives him some sort of sick rush.
This is bad.

A Dirty GM, on the other hand, is someone who uses every dirty trick in the book to challenge the players. Keeping them off balance with guerrilla tactics, he increases the players’ enjoyment with off-beat and unorthodox methods, forcing them to think on their feet, use their improvisational skills and keep their adrenaline pumping at full speed.
This is good. -Source: Play Dirty by John Wick

Sometimes, the idea of challenging them with the off-beat and unorthodox methods is to go outside what regular GM advice may tell you to do. Don’t make it a direct adversarial game between you and the players, that always ends up with someone getting some hurt feelings. Instead, you want to do what makes for the most interesting stories. Think of it like a tv series, one that you have been commissioned for a season and are hoping for more. So, you want to keep viewership high by telling involved stories and occasionally, you’ll have a plot thread that will get left behind as people move on. Lost was a perfect example of this, with six seasons worth of episodes, there are bound to be some things that get lost in the cracks. You just need to keep the hype up, keep the players coming back to your table, and sometimes, that means giving your heroes a handicap and then watching them overcome it.