Wednesday 24 February 2021

Sticky Goblins

Yes, the title was a lie to draw you in. This is actually a game-design post. As an apology, have this thematically-correct image;


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.

I mean, very few D&D parties are going to just walk past the Cheese encounter. They will want to do something, even if its just to encourage the Goblin.


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...


  1. The concept of Openness seems pretty clear, but I am also having trouble separating Neutrality from Consequences.

    As I understand it, in this framework, an encounter is more neutral if it less Open, or of lower Consequence.
    Or I might think of Neutrality as potential moral/psychological Consequences, as opposed to social/physical Consequences.


    If I were to divide things up, I might do it like this:

    Avoidable - can the PCs (more or less) easily avoid this encounter?
    Interactive - can the PCs (more or less) easily interact with this encounter?

    High or low in either category, forms it's own cartesian grid:
    Difficult to Avoid, Easy to Interact | Easy to Avoid or Interact
    Difficult to Avoid or Interact | Easy to Avoid, Difficult to Interact

    I think Difficult to Avoid should be mostly... avoided. But you can't run forever.
    Eay to Interact with is a good thing. In a power-fantasy game, as many encounters as possible should be easy for PCs to interact with.
    In other games, Hard to Interact encounters might show the PCs' standing in the world, or encourage them to find more oblique methods of interaction. Encounters that are easy to Interact with in some ways, and harder in others can be good to give different PCs and play-styles opportunity to shine.
    Avoidance is about the encounter, not its consequences. Avoidable consequences are simply lesser consequences. In this framework, the locked-down city wouldn't make the assault encounter less avoidable, just more consequential. If it happened in a jail cell next to (or with!) the PCs, that would make it less avoidable.

    What do the PCs stand to gain or lose by interacting with the Encounter? If they avoid it?
    Material - what can be gained, what danger will be faced
    Informational - what can be learned
    Social - how will the opinions of other groups/individuals change
    Moral/Psychological - how will the players or characters feel about interacting (or not) with this encounter? what will it Say About Them?

    A Interactivity encounter with low Consequences might as well be an empty room.
    An encounter the PCs can screw around with but having little consequence might be fun, but too many of them might not. So, you'll probably want some Consequences, and variety is nice.
    The Interactivity/Avoidability of an encounter can certainly affect the Social or Moral/Psychological Consequences of an encounter.

    1. But is an empty room really something you can interact with? For interaction don't there have to be results of some kind?

      sigh - now I've confused myself again. I think what it is is I just wrote a bad, blurry post I think.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Oops, that was a typo on my part. I meant "A low Interactivity encounter with low Consequences might as well be an empty room."

      I thought I understood the post (I enjoyed reading it at least), even if I would slice things a little differently. But maybe I'm mistaken.

  2. If I understand correctly, neutrality is about effecting the world (ignoring a beggar won't change the world significantly), while consequences are more personal (an helpful blind dog isn't very useful). Which makes me think that the quarantined city example is much more about consequence (the factions would likely interact with the PCs) and not neutrality. Maybe another example for a very non-neutral encounter would be witnessing a duel between two heads of states. It's not very open, but if the PCs change the outcome of the duel, it would effect the game world immensely without necessarily making the winner like them too much.

    I think that, in general, Hot Spring Island has many polar encounters. There're many fine balances which the PCs can stumble into and throw into chaos.
    I would even say that factions are probably one of the easiest ways to increase the polarity of encounters, while not always increasing the consequences, at least not as much.

    1. Good points. The existence of factions is a key thing.

  3. I think these are useful and original concepts.
    In these terms, I try and keep openness pretty high; most elements I plan into a particular environment can slot the party unless it's a background drama that is driving world events, in which case the party interface for it comes in the form of smaller scenes specific to a locale.
    In a murderhobo campaign, the party are (logically) a shiny object to most of the movers and shakers they'll encounter; something to be employed, exiled, interfered with or denied to the enemy. A wandering force/force multiplier that is flexible, expendable, deniable and unaccountable to a higher authority besides the decision maker and the gods. In other campaigns the party are usually a force with an impetus towards authority and action; nobles, Jedi, Space Marines, policemen.
    I put in high-neutrality situations that are interesting or experimental but not necessary; these are teasers that the players can enter if they want to, but that I don't plan for them to be critical.
    My high-consequence encounters are usually setpiece, but have *very* long tails; the fall of the society the PCs are embedded in, the destruction of a colony they have helped develop, a twenty-degree cooling in global temperatures, the destruction of the highest good god.
    Again, I think these are useful concepts. I use conceptual frameworks from many different people when I analyze my own output; for example, the idea that an adventure can have a premise that isn't pre-answered by the GM but rather by how the players live it out ingame, or the idea of conceptual density, or Scrap's idea of being a good glove, or your idea of psychic energy.
    I suppose one measure for stickiness in murderhobo campaigns is how much it will change the *conditions* in which the players operate; if they don't engage with the scene, how much will their action or inaction affect the environment in which they operate regardless of their atomization? This might be a worthwhile tradeoff for them, and may make for an interesting decision one way or another

    1. Hmm, maybe this is better/clearer

      Open - How easy and simple would it be for the PCs to dick about with this.

      Grabby - will *non-interaction* stick to the PCs. Can they just walk away with no connsequences.

      Encounter Tail - how big and how deep are the consequences of this encounter;
      A - for the PCs play.
      B - for the *players*.
      C - in the imagined world, even if it doesn't affect play.

  4. I think it makes sense. Actions need to have consequences, though i think we could differentiate between known and unknown consequences. Going back to the quarantined city scenario, the party might think it's a no or low consequence scenario if they have no idea who those involved are (likely in most pre-written adventures since the party tends to be "strangers" to the adventure by default)unless you design in the facts that need to known in an interactive manner (i.e., not in the backstory but through previous interactions, or clues (their clothing/ids of stature for the example).

    1. Yes sustained interaction with a milieu is a key thing with deepening all of these, especially Encounter tail.

  5. I also think these are useful concepts, especially in the (openness, grabbiness, tail) version.

    My gut feeling is that in general you want the average encounter to be highly open, moderately grabby, and have _some_ tail. And across all encounters you want a distribution around those, with the "tail" one being flatter (i.e. more prone to extremes).

  6. What products are you working on these days?

    1. Right now am trying to go hard on Demon-Bone Sarcophagus and Queen Mab.

  7. It seems to me that Neutrality & Consequences are pretty much the same thing.

    Thinking about these elements from the perspective of the players, Openness seems to be an evaluation of "HOW can I interact with this piece of fiction? What is likely to happen to _my character_ if I take action X, or action Y, or action Z?" The more of those vectors that line up with the player/character's motivations, the more "open" the encounter is. The design challenge is to evoke in the players ideas about what those actions might be, and to align them with player motives.

    "Neutrality" and "Consequence" to me both seem to be asking, "WHY should I interact with this piece of fiction? What is likely to happen to _the world_ if I take action X, or Y, or Z?" The more of these outcomes that the player/character finds "interesting", the less neutral or more consequential the encounter is. The design challenge is to evoke in the players ideas about what those outcomes might be, and to align them with player interest.

    There's probably a good third tentpole to be lashed on here, but imo HOW and WHY are probably the two most important questions to answer so maybe that is sufficient.

  8. You've put the thoughts in my brain directly into words

    Too often have my city encounters resulted in "we turn around, and walk the other way, and pretend that we saw nothing".

    Like, I don't care all that much whether or not the players can have a meaningful impact on the encounter. I probably should, but I don't. I just need ways to make the above method the *worst* way of resolving stuff, especially for players that are busy and want to avoid fuss. Without being too ham-handed about it either... hmm.