From Evil Overlords to PC Engagement – Tribality for the win

Over at Tribality.com+Brandes Stoddard throws down a post called Playing with a Stranger’s Toys. Notionally it’s about the challenges of using other settings and adventures. He brings up a few examples, and a contrived scenario (not his own) where the players are put in the situation where they are being approached, on a ship, by another ship full of minotaurs, nominally peaceably.

He notes that nearly any player who has played a game, watched  TV, or seen a movie will basically screech “HARD A’STARBOARD!” at that moment, and prepare to engage in life-or-death combat.
Better to start with the PCs just being captured – why present the illusion of choice when there’s really no choice there at all – or to give the PCs a reason to be captured.
That got me thinking. I’ve posted a bit before about the motivations and methods of bad guy organiations – most recently in Sensible Master Plans Redux, and another that was the origin of that post called Bad Guy Chararacterization 2: General McChrystal does RPGing. They talk about keeping villains both villainous and not-stupid by working out the answers to just a few questions beforehand.
But Brandes’ post turns this on its head. What about the PCs? More importantly, and in context, how does one write an adventure or set up a setting or introduce a plot hook that has bite?
I think the key is to treat the players like criminals. Well, or at least spies.

MICE

The acronym MICE is short for Money, Ideology, Compromise, Ego, though C can also be Coercion, and E Extortion in some models. Still, it’s a mnemonic for why someone will betray an allegiance. 
Why not use this as a shorthand to see how to get the PCs involved in your adventure? 
Money
The simplest answer, and when you get XP for gold, as in some versions of old-school DnD, is that the players will get involved because the money was good enough. It’s not always enough, though – especially when the adventure calls to do something  against the character’s basic motivation. And while in a game like Shadowrun where a basic conceit is “I do the job, and then I get paid,” not all games – and more importantly, not all characters – are built around money.
As an example, in the Aeon Campaign, one of the PCs, goes by the name of Arc Light when he’s wrapped in his battlesuit, is apparently a multi-billionaire. To the point that in the last game, he plunked down two hundred million dollars in an auction account just to make sure that we had reserve funds to win it. Which we did. You’re quite simply not going to interest this guy in getting paid for something, unless he also has Greed on his character sheet, or if getting paid is shorthand for another motivation.

Ideology

There are many facets to this, and they need not all be envisioned as a bunch of poor people waving a red flag while crooning “Do you hear the people sing.” 
Though that’s always good. Les Mis is it’s own reward.
But while revolution is its own ideology, so is “For Queen and Country,” and especially in Fantasy RPGs, if not the real world “Because God Says So.” 

I mean, in many Fantasy RPGs, the gods pay people personal visits and occasionally engage in heavy petting with their worshippers, so when God says so, the odds of it being delusional behavior are rather low. I mean, dude, not only did Aphrodite tell me she needed me to head north and get something for her, not only did she give me this suit of armor that her husband made for me, but wow, Nothing Compares 2 Divine Lovin’!

Perhaps I digress – but the point that anything from “it’s the right thing to do,” “because I’m loyal to my feudal lady,” or “because the manifestation of my deity showed up and told me to” are all Ideological motivations to get a PC off his duff and into the wild world of adventuring, without having to pay them. Or perhaps in addition to paying them.

Compromise or Coersion


Yeah, that “liaison” you just had with Aphrodite? You were kinda loud. So . . . if you don’t head East and get the Staff of MagGuffin for me, I’m going to tell the guy with the Hammer and Forge about it. 


And he’s not going to be happy with you.


So, compromise. The way most PCs are, a GM won’t even have to play the fiat card – the players will give plenty of hooks on their own.

But still, threatening a PC with consequences if they don’t get involved in the adventure is a real way to get them involved, but risks loss of agency if it’s just dumped on them. “Oh, you were caught in a compromising situation” is way more legit if the character does it to herself. A quick search of the Disadvantages section of the sheet on a GURPS PC will usually reveal whether or not they can be had this way by internal motivation.

But the time-honored “framed for a crime they didn’t committ” trick is always available as well. Heck, having a powerful noble whose word is as good as law simply make an accusation is good – and in many areas of the world today, that power exists simply through dictatorial fiat. And even in the “First World,” things like doxxing and ransomware are clear and present dangers, so across times and cultures, people can put others in compromising positions that will make them get with a program.

There’s no question that this can be high-handed on the part of the GM, and in writing the equivalent of gravity wells for plots, it’s always best if the victim (the player) puts her foot in the trap willingly. And by the way, “you have lecherous, greedy, compulsive gambling, or Dependents on your character sheet” – or the equivalent in any other game – means that the player has already voluntarily put her foot in the trap, by virtue of paying for good abilities with the promise of plot hooks.

Ego (or Experience)

This can be arrogance and pride. But in RPG terms, “I want to level up’ is a form of ego built right into the game, though from that perspective, experience point rewards are probably more closely a form of payment.

But challenging a character’s bravery, or allowing them to establish a reputation are key motivators here, with plenty of support in the literature. And by “the literature,” I’m talking Sir Conan of Schwartzenegger. From “I will have my own kingdom, by my own hand” to “Crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of their women!” the drive to be Just Damn Better Than You looms large in the motivating factors for heroes of all sorts.

Denethor seemed to appeal to Boromir’s ego in the cuts from Return of the King that only Gondor should have the ring. “A chance for Faramir, captain of Gondor, to show his quality” is right over the center of the plate for Ego, and was in many ways the true operating motivation of the One Ring itself, tempting Sauruman, Faramir, Boromir, and even Gandalf and Galadriel.

Ego, the desire to be not only better than others, but seen that way? Powerful. Anakin Skywalker was driven by it – in fact, it can be said that the fall of the Jedi order was brought about by Palpatine using his own Ego and Ideology to corrupt the Ego and Ideology of his target – they largely brought about their own destruction, at least up to the point of General Order 66.

Combined Arms Adventure Writing

The key, of course is never throw one motivation to get on board when four or five will do. If you really, really want to engage a team of players and their characters, you will need a very broad funnel for them to enter into, choosing which of the hooks they’ll accept for themselves.

So provide them. In fact, provide several, acknowledging that being forced onto a train and riding the rails is kidnapping, but stepping onto a train and riding those same rails while enjoying wine and food is a journey, experience, and vacation.

But recognize this – the players want to be engaged. But they want to be engaged their own way. Give each one of the four reasons above, and ideally two or three, and the carefully-planned adventure can occur as per schedule. But “that just doesn’t interest me” isn’t the player’s fault – it’s a foreseeable occurrence that they will interact with the world with a “why should I care?” lens. So think about it, using the framework above.

Let’s get real here. Tomorrow night +Peter V. Dell’Orto+Patrick Kelly +Brian Renninger at the minimum, perhaps joined by +gregory blair, will find themselves in Northpoint having successfully engaged and defeated an ogre with fairly minimal fuss last game. They will learn that a caravan from the Keep at Northwatch to Midgard had been lost, and a small team of scouts sent to find it . . . that team never returned. 

They will also learn that the pattern of predation that they attributed to bandits (they’d found evidence of both medium and large humanoids on their own scouting) has continued, or even accelerated. The towns along Audreyn’s Wall are concerned, but they don’t really have the manpower to engage in recon and destruction missions.

So, I can count on these guys to head out and try and take on a force that already destroyed one group of PCs? Right?

No. Not without the right hooks. All of these guys are interested in adventuring North of the wall. That’s why they’re there. But if they are to choose to go after the bandits, or do whatever, I’m going to have to provide a set of motivations that they will choose from.

They’re 1st level characters in a game based off of the SRD5.1, the engine that powers DnD5e. So they need money, gear, and experience to level up. I recall Peter is a Monk, we had at least one Warlock and a Ranger. Maybe a fighter is the fourth? 

So paying them in cash or gear is obviously a possibility. Ideology probably doesn’t work real well, though the Monk might be engaged that way. Coercion is possible, but seems rather heavy-handed – though being press-ganged into a recon force is a possibility, the adventure would quickly turn into “kill the captors and escape to the north.” That has real possibilities, actually. Which leaves Ego, and gaining the reputation of being the ones that stopped the loss of supplies and caravans would bring them additional opportunities to improve their status, power, and wealth – all of which will be needed to secure lands north of the wall and claim right of conquest as peers of the realm.

But look at that. I now know how to involve at least several of them in one potential plot direction. And if they don’t have any Ideological hooks now, I’ll have to encourage the campaign to grow some (clerics, druids, and paladins, some monks, have this built in to the character class) or work harder to find them (“your fighter’s old unit went out for recon, and is missing!”).

This brings us back to Brandes’ ship of minotaurs. No sane group of PCs is going to make nice-nice with violent bull-men just so they can be captures. That’s not MICE, it’s S for Stupid. Which is a good motivation for a criminal, but not so good for a spy that intends to remain alive and out of prison.

So how to engage them? They can be paid. Join the minotaurs on their island, and there’s money in it for you. This could easily be “there’s a valuable artifact at the minotaur home village/island/town/whatever that you can pillage, and in return, you have also done me a service.” Ideology would be invoked if getting captured served a larger goal, in which case the PCs would simply surrender as part of the plan. That puts agency right back in the hands of the PCs, where fun games live. Coercion is the operative force already in play (the PCs will be captured), but inflicting that coercion requires active stupidity on the part of the PCs. Better to have a minotaur or an ally sneak on board and take a valuable captive, or heck, just cut the rudder chain/cable, so that the ship is effectively dead at sea. Now going along with the minotaurs is the only thing to do. But again, the GM must be careful here to pretend PC agency when none, in fact, exists. Finally, Ego – there’s a challenge that the characters will gain renown for meeting, that others have tried. 

Tried and failed? No. Tried and died.


Oh? Really? Tried and died? I’m in. Let’s do this..

Thanks for Brandes for penning something to inspire thoughts today!

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