WHAT LEAD ME DOWN THIS TRAIN OF THOUGHT
For different books I've been working on I've been putting together different monsters, groups, characters and situations. One problem or difficulty I've come up against is producing large numbers of encounters that are what I came to think of as 'sticky'.
What happened is that I found myself often repeating or cycling through similar patterns of encounter.
Originally I wanted encounters that were somewhat dramatic, or at least interesting within themselves, expressive of the character of different individuals and groups, had world-texture to them so experiencing them taught you about the world of the game or adventure, but were also not necessarily violent, though they might have the potential for violence within them, yet were also consequential.
That's a lot really, the density of concepts of what I was looking for maybe explains some of why I have found it so challenging.
After thinking about it a bit more I have broken it down into different kinds of 'stickiness' which, though actually pretty different, seem to mesh quite intuitively in play and design.
OPENESS - short term stickiness
The first is the openness, or the embracing nature of the encounter - how much its elements allow interaction, and how much they would *actually want* the PCs to interact.
Low openness would be;
- You hear the sound of hoofbeats and enter a clearing to see two fully armoured knights encountered in the act of directly charging towards each other, lances levelled.
The Knights are presumably higher status than the PCs and they won't be happy if the PCs get in the way. Physically if the PCs do intervene then it will likely only lead to injury for them and the Knights as well. Afterwards, no-one will be happy with the PCs. So socially, politically and physically this is a situation that is very 'closed'. More like a scene from a film. You *could* push yourselves to interact but most of the logic of the situation is against it.
Very high openness might be;
- A plump halfling screams as a greasy, naked goblin holds it down and tries to force cheese into its mouth. The Halfling is crying "The CHEESE! No! Not the CHEEEESE!" while the Goblin cackles madly.
So physically and socially both parties are much weaker than the PCs. It shouldn't be too hard to overpower them and stop this from happening. (Apart from the greasiness of the goblin). There are no weapons involved that you can see so its non-lethal. As opposed to the Knights, its seemingly unequal - the Goblin looks to be in the wrong and the Halfling looks like a victim. Also its over something ridiculous like cheese, which lowers the status of the encounter and so perhaps the fear of intervention.
A second quality is the non-neutral nature of the encounter. This something where if you leave it, there will be no big change. Like walking past a beggar in the street, you are technically guilty of ignoring every beggar you don't help but its probably not going to stick to you or turn up again in your life, or the world, in a noticeable way.
What’s a highly neutral encounter? Maybe something like;
- You see a group of destitute Orcs in the distance. In this game all Orcs are violent and bad, they never negotiate and always attack. This group is large. They are clearly migrating across an empty plain in the distance, from one land you don't know to another you also don't know. You have seen them and they haven't seen you. To avoid them, just stay still for a while then move on.
The Orcs are (in this setting) simply bad and always aggressive. You know exactly what they are going to do if they meet you and its always the same thing. There are a lot of them, so they might win a fight between you. They have no wealth so no immediate material award. They are going from a place you have no connection to, to another place you have no connection to across an empty place you have a slight connection to. They are interacting with nothing and dealing with them will probably change nothing you will ever learn about.
What’s and extremely non-neutral encounter? A 'polar' encounter?
- You are in a city in lockdown due to plague and overhear, then directly visually witness, a sexual assault between two relatively high-status individuals with their own networks. Say the son of the citys Guard captain and the daughter of the cities minority-ethnicity crime gang. Both individuals see that you have seen them.
So, this is going to be a thing whether you like it or not. Firstly it’s an immediate interaction happening right in front of you, in your personal space (so that’s more openness, but it also means 'you could have done something). It’s between two individuals who are connected to two groups who will definitely side with those individuals. Both of those groups have a major ability to affect your life in different ways. The city is locked-down and you can't leave. Even if you pretend you saw nothing neither individual will accept this and neither will their prospective groups. They NEED you on their side and will not accept a neutral position. neutrality will be considered opposition to them. Not only that but its a hot-button cultural issue in a contained, dangerous and resource-poor environment so your relationship with the various factions more-directly affects your ability to survive.
I have slipped over here into describing 'Consequences', the last part of my division, which illustrates either the difficulty and possible futility of taking a cartesian approach to the most human of games or just my own ill-discipline and stupidity.
Really in a 'lived reality' openness, neutrality and consequences will all interact and amplify/neutralise each other. If there was nothing you could *physically* have done, then there will be less polarity and less consequences;
"Hey you saw the two mega-giants fighting and did nothing."
"Aye, for they are fucking massive and I am but small."
"A reasonable response."
CONSEQUENCES - encounter tail or long term stickiness
The last is the tail of the encounter. The degree to which your action or inaction will affect the players and PCs afterwards.
This seems to relate most deeply to the containedness of the environment and social situation. The more tied the PCs are to a certain social and political milieux, and the more deeply connected the agents of the milieux are, or perhaps simply the greater their ability to project power, then the deeper the consequences.
Murder-Hobo PCs traipsing across an infinite world populated by atomised and individually weak groups will experience few consequences while relatively weak PCs trapped in a complex and closely connected world of powerful actors will experience deep consequences.
There is also the moral nature of the encounter itself of course.. Lets see what I can come up with for a very consequential encounter;
- You are in disguise as the missing Duke and his entourage. The city/castle is under siege. You see the Queen about to push the King down some stairs from behind.
Hmm. What’s a super low-consequence encounter?
- You are marching along the Kings highway as night comes on. You are in the middle of a big host of travelling people. In the dirt by the side of the road you see a leprous peasant fighting a blind dog for a bone with a scrap of meat still attached.
Its night, or evening so you are nearly visually anonymous. There is a crowd so you have crowd/group anonymity. Its a road so everyone there is atomised somewhat from their usually social networks. The peasant and dog are both very low status, probably far below your own, which might increase the 'openness' of the encounter, it would be physically and socially easy to intervene, but means that neither are likely to have a consequential effect on your future. The diseased nature of the peasant and the fact that the dog is blind mean neither are likely to be useful or effectual in any way.
- What do you think of my division of concepts into openness, neutrality and consequences?
- Are neutrality/polarity [whether you interact or not has a big effect] and Consequences [the results of your interactions will stick to you long-term, even useful concepts, considering how bad and blurred my examples were?
- if not, why not?
- what tools of thought would you use to make encounters like this?
- what notable 'sticky' encounters do you remember from your own games?
- how much of each quality do you prefer in your own adventures and campaigns, and how does that relate to the kind of campaign or adventure? as in more naturalistic and long term, short punchy ones, city or rural based?
- Any novel, innovate or interesting ideas for generating different kinds of stickiness?
- I’m interesting in what differently-minded people might do with the same problem. What would an Arnoldish approach to stickyness be? Literal organic stickiness, mutation, some game-rule or diagetic artefact? I'm not a very 'D&D' D&D creator, so there should be many ways of applying consequences in particular that spring from magic or high-fantasy elements...