Hooks, eyes, cringles, lashings, and the big iron ring — technique for character-players

Continuing the discussion from Do you have any advice for character-players?:

This essay is about technique for character-players in that kind of RPG in which the GM and other players collaborate in improvising a story that they tell each other as they extemporise it. It might be interesting to players in true sandbox games with no direction from the GM or in games where the GM acts as an opponent or adversary for the other players, but I do not suppose that it will be useful to them nor that its generalisations will apply to their games.

I think the term “scenario hook” as used in discussing RPGs was originally copied from the discussion of other storytelling forms that have a sharper distinction between author and audience. Despite that connection there is a significant difference between “scenario hooks” in RPGs and the hooks of stories and movies. The hook of a novel, film, or TV show is the feature that attracts the attention of the audience, that starts the readers reading and holds their interest until they become engaged with the plot and characters. It is at least conceptually distinct from the initiating incident that draws the protagonists out of their status quo and into the action of the story. The two can be the same, but often they aren’t, especially when the writers need to establish the status quo before introducing the initiating incident. “Begin before the beginning” is good advice for writing, but it means that you need to hook the audience before you begin before the beginning, else they won’t read or watch your initial setting of the stage. The hook is the thing that makes readers choose your book rather than the next one on the shelf, stream your show rather than the one next to it under “recommended for you”. Very often the hook of a story in conventional media is a striking premise (such as “Batman v. Superman”), and it is conveyed in the title, the cover art, the poster, or the trailer. It’s need not even be apparent to the characters.

The hook of an RPG scenario is somewhat different. It may pique the character-players’ interest and excite their engagement with the story, but in an RPG the character-players are usually on board for the game before the GM introduces the scenario hook. The scenario hook is not the thing that engages the audience but the thing that draws the characters into the story. It’s often a lot more like the initiating incident of a conventional-form story than like its hook. It is something that happens in the fictive world that engages the character-players and provides a motive for them to do something more or less specific.

A scenario hook has two functions, or works on two levels. The character-players presumably want to take part in an adventure, perhaps the one that the GM has prepared for. On the Doylist level the scenario hook is informative: it tells the players what sort of things they can start doing, what features of the world they can engage with, to get into the story on the right foot. It is on the Watsonian level that the scenario hook ought to be motivating: it supplies a motive for the characters to start doing the things that constitute their part in an adventure. It is an awkward and unpropitious beginning to an adventure for the players to know what their characters are required to do, but not to believe that those characters would do those things in the circumstances.

I am going to propose — I don’t think this is either original or controversial — that GMs use plot hooks throughout at RPG adventure and campaign. Not just scenario hooks to get PCs into an adventure, but plot hooks to draw them on through conflict and complications, sub-plot hooks to draw them into digressions and side-quests, and even scene hooks to get them into particular situations (which may be prepared or improvised) from a useful direction and in a useful attitude. On the Doylist level these hooks inform us, they tell us either specifically or in general terms what sort of thing to do next, what direction to head in. On the Watsonian level they offer motives to our characters to act on without acting out of character. It is part of the art of the GM that they function on both levels. It is part of the art of the character player to co-operate in making them easy and effective.

The first technique for character-players that I suggest is what I call an “eye splice”. It is something that a PCs does either in the nonce or habitually that creates an opportunity for the GM to engage the character with a hook. When you are at the beginning of an adventure and you don’t know how to start, or when you come to a standstill and don’t know how to proceed, do not turtle, thrash, or succumb to analysis paralysis. Rather, have your character go out into contact with NPCs, sources of information, and other features of the world and do something that gives the GM a chance to deploy a hook that will give you direction and your character a motivation. An eye splice can be an unique act peculiar to an unique situation. It can also be a routine action that your character does every appropriate time.

For example, if you are playing a team of homicide detectives in a police procedural, you ought always to examine the body in situ as discovered, search the scene where it was discovered, examine its clothing and effects, interview the person who found the body and the first responder, canvas for witnesses, interview the family, co-workers, and people involved in quarrels or financial dealings with the deceased, attend the autopsy, make sure of the cause of death, make sure of the place and time of death, check financial transactions, etc. The GM’s hook into the course of the adventure is going to be in that stuff, and the routine eye-splicing is the way that you find it. When you don’t have the luxury of routine procedure to guide you you get to be more creative and original, or to devise a toolbox of gambits and ploys (cribbed perhaps from James Bond or Michael Westen) that give the GM an opportunity to give you information and motivation through the response of NPCs.

The second technique that I suggest is to design your character with cringles: permanent features suitable to let the GM to catch the character with a hook, each reinforced with a grommet to withstand repeated use and worked in securely to the structure of the character’s motives so as to withstand, if necessary, powerful forces without tearing. Player characters ought to have, variously, loved one they would protect, duties they would serve, secrets they would strive to conceal, habits and compulsions that they would repeat, interests they would pursue, debts they would repay and so on — not as weaknesses to compensate for their strengths, but as cringles by which the GM can motivate and direct them from time to time.

Characters who are strongly inclined to take an interest in NPCs and get involved in their troubles have a useful cringle. That might consist of an urge to succour the distressed or to relieve those afflicted by injustice.

It is very much the thing to discuss cringles with your GM and to come to an explicit understanding whether character weaknesses are going to be used as cringles to guide your character’s progress or as obstacles to obstruct it. Many of the RPGs that have explicit rules for character disadvantages or weaknesses price them in accordance with how much they disadvantage your character and not in accordance with how useful they are to the GM. Guided by these rules, many GMs take it that a player who includes a disad or weakness into a character design does so as a request to deal with a particular sort of challenge or difficulty, and not as a service to the GM.

The third technique that I suggest is lashing the characters in a party firmly together, so that when the GM draws one into an adventure, plot line, or scene the others tend to follow. For the GM to have to draw several characters into the adventure with separate hooks is a tedious chore that kills pace and challenges suspension of disbelief. It is good practice, I think, for the character players to design ties that hold the party together firmly if not tightly, so that the GM only needs one hook for each adventure, and so that nobody has to scratch their head for a reason why their character is going on this adventure.

Some RPGs (West End Games’ Star Wars RPG springs to mind as an example) directed each player to design their character with an explicit relationship and personal bond to another PC already attached to the rest of the party, so that the party was a connected graph of characters joined by idiosyncratic bonds. That works if you’re all committed to it, but I find it a bit cumbersome, besides which such parties are fragile in the face of loss and turnover either of players or of characters.

Finally, I suggest the big iron ring that each PC is separately lashed to, and that the GM can engage repeatedly and forcefully with hooks that are not peculiar to any character. One example would be a firm of private detectives, to which the PCs are all tied by being its partners and employees. A hook might then consist of a client coming with a case, which the PCs then investigate because it is their business and livelihood to do so. Another example would be a Mission Impossible team or other covert ops unit, to which the PCs are tied by their duty.

I find that having a big iron ring of some sort is so useful for scenario hooks that I almost always offer campaigns that are defined by a one. That is, campaigns for a team of characters whose job it is to do some thing together, the adventures consisting of missions or jobs and what the characters do at, or as a result of, their work. One danger, though, is that if you pull on the ring the characters come along, but if you pull on a PC’s personal cringle the ring and other characters don’t necessarily come along. So I recommend it as good practice for the GM and character players to discuss and agree, when a big iron ring is in use, whether the ring is going to be the only thing to be caught by scenario hooks or whether other lashings might be required for occasional off-duty adventures.

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What you call a Big Iron Ring is one option for giving a campaign a sense of unity. But it’s not the only one. I think you can get the same effect with a Crucible: A situation in which all the player characters are caught up, and which they have to deal with, and where they will keep encountering each other. This is a classic structure for horror and apocalyptic plots. And in a way it’s the structure of one of the classic and cozy mystery plots, the locked room, except that the protagonist there is the detective whose investigation is trapping a bunch of NPCs . . .

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Good point.

Is there any advice that we can give to character-players whose GM intends to hold their party together with a crucible?

There’s a lot here, starting with another bit of advice for writers: start your story at the beginning, but then throw away the first three chapters. (Which works better if you’re in a medium which permits flashbacks.)

I’ve said before that I think players accustomed to adversarial GMing (or S. John Ross’s Play Dirty) try to build characters without weaknesses, without things for the GM to get a purchase on. Sure, you’ve got a limited number of hit points; so does everyone. But if you ever admit to having a sick Aunt May then she will be used as a lever to make your character un-fun to play. Those are your cringles, and players who don’t want to have them… should perhaps be encouraged by the example of those who do having a better time.

In other words I’m all in favour of velcro characters, sticking out hooks and loops all over the place that can be used to involve them in things for personal reasons as well as it being their job. That killer of young women just went after the waitress at my favorite pizza place… and it’s not just a hook, because that means the killer’s moving on from prostitutes and street people and that may be a way to catch them. And so on.

My default adventure model is investigative, and once the investigation has started most players want to see it to its conclusion (as do most characters). So a clue to further puzzle pieces is often enough of a hook once things are rolling.

I’m generally not fond of in-party conflict, so I’m probably more iron ring than crucible on that scale. The thing I often jump back to, Mission: Impossible, had occasional off-books missions: e.g. a criminal has somehow found out about the IM Force and is pressuring the leader into doing something for him. The others come along on the job (which is to appear to get the job done, and deal with the criminal too) because they’re a team who like each other (and Doylistically because it’s an ensemble show of course). That’s a cringle that pulls the party because the party’s already tied together.

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My main piece of advice is to make sure the players know that’s what’s going to happen to their characters. Don’t make it a surprise! You can surprise them with the detailed nature of the constraining force, but make sure they’re aware there will be one.

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I’ve mever run a game with flashbacks. I suppose it might be doable by a process similar to my prologue/opening credits episodes for Under the Shadow.

I’ve run a number of campaigns with intra-party conflict.

  • When I ran Oak and Ash and Thorn, four of the PCs were talented teenage musicians; the fifth was a football hooligan. There were some serious clashes.

  • When I ran Manse, conflict wasn’t a major focus, but with four characters per player, there were opportunities for it to emerge.

  • In Whispers (my first Transhuman Space campaign), conflict came about from roleplaying, when the other player characters learned that the hacker member of their agency had no respect for their privacy, felt entitled to meddle with any personal files they couldn’t keep her out of, and in fact regarded them rather as pets. We had a session where they called in a team building consultant, who invented a number of ingenious exercises to put them all through. Then there were sessions with the hacker seeing the memetic therapist they referred her to . . .

  • Hong Kong Shadows had mages from three different Chinese schools, plus a Virtual Adept; they sorted out into two factions. But since everyone was also playing the non-Awakened ally of a different player’s mage, many players had characters on both sides! We played out a number of scenes where different mages were actively working against each other. I didn’t make any attempt to conceal what one mage was doing from the players of opposed mages; I just expected them to firewall, and they all did.

I find that this sort of thing can add drama, or occasionally comedy, to a campaign, so I tend to favor it. But I don’t encourage it in what Agemegos is calling “iron ring” campaigns. Any functional team had better have members who can subordinate their personal rivalries and hostilities to getting things done.

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