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It’s been a few weeks since my last big article (the one about bards and songs and urban legends and stuff), so I figure it’s about time for another one. If you’re an experienced GM, you’ve probably already figured out a lot of the stuff I’m going to talk about here. That doesn’t mean you should stop reading, though. I’m going to take this in a direction you might not have thought of before. Stick with me, and let me know in the comments if you have any thoughts once I’m done.
Today I want to talk about something every GM experiences at some point. You’ve got your adventure all written up and ready to go, you know what combat and non-combat encounters you’d like to throw at your group, you know all the details of the mystery they’re trying to solve, and you’ve peppered your game with clues galore. And yet…
Fresh off the back of that awesome fight the group just scraped through, the game grinds to a halt. The party spent some time healing and patting themselves on the back, catching their breath and generally winding down from the adrenaline rush of the fight. But now they aren’t sure what to do next. There was a point in all their talking where it seemed like they had a solid plan, that they knew what was going to happen, but now it’s fizzled out and the game is starting to languish a little. Attention is beginning to wane, players are started to talk about non-game stuff, and you have a horrible feeling that everything is going to fall apart.
Now, maybe it’s not as bad as all that, bur I’m fairly certain any semi-experienced GM has seen some of these danger signs rearing their head. Today we’re going to talk about a way of dealing with it, something you can do in your adventure prep (and that you can keep in mind while you’re playing) that will massively reduce the chances of this happening.
To talk about this, we’re actually going to step away from gaming for a few minutes to talk about something I’m very passionate about. That something is the craft of writing fiction. Not the art. Not the magic, or the inspiration, or whatever. The craft. I’m talking about the tools that writers – and particularly novelists, though this also applies to short stories (and I’ve successfully used this technique when writing academic essays, too) – use when the inspiration has dried up, when they’re lost in the labyrinth that is Act 2 of a novel, when the magic or the inspiration or whatever has fled, but they have a deadline to meet and an editor breathing down their neck and the writing has to happen.
We’re not going to get too technical. We’re going to look at something really, really basic, but something that is integral to telling a story that flows. It’s not a universal rule – I’m not in the habit of laying down commandments – but it’s proved useful for me, and I think it will be useful for you, too.
First, though, you might be asking what the hell I know about the craft of writing. Well, I’ll tell you, how about that? I’ve written a few novels in my time (though none are published, so that doesn’t mean much) and a ton more short stories (some of which are published – one in Red Phone Box, alongside the incredible Warren Ellis). I also have a First Class degree in English Literature and Creative Writing, and I’m currently undertaking a Masters in – you guessed it – English Lit and Creative Writing (the official title of the MA is ‘Creative Writing: Innovation and Experiment). I’m by no means an expert – I’m not a bestselling author, unless you count my DM’s Guild titles – but this happens to be something I know a fair amount about.
So. I’m done introducing, in irritatingly vague terms. And I’ve swung my credentials around. So what is this amazing knowledge gift I’m going to bestow on you?
It’s two things, really, and they both tie into each other. And once I show you, you’re going to see it everywhere – in films, in books, even in songs. And these two things are very simple. I call them The Conflict and The Comedown. (I can’t take credit for the idea itself. As far as I know, the idea was first developed by Dwight Swain in Techniques of the Selling Writer. Other people quite commonly talk about Scenes and Reactions, or Scenes and Sequels, but I don’t like that terminology for reasons I’m not going to go into here, at risk of turning this into an academic rant instead of something you can use to make your games better.).
The gist of it, in terms of a novel or a story, is as follows; Characters have some kind of encounter that moves the plot forward, be it an awkward conversation that they’ve been putting off, or a physical fight, or a spell-slinging duel with Blendo the Castomancer above a sea of lava while daggers rain from the sky, or whatever. In these scenes there is a goal, and someone trying to prevent them reaching that goal, and some kind of resolution – either they succeed, or they don’t.
Immediately following the conflict comes the Reaction (or, as I termed it, the comedown). This is where the characters decompress after the dramatic events they just went through. They mull them over, they talk it out, they react emotionally or physically to the horrors they just witnessed, whatever. The crucial part of this reaction (in a non-interactive story, at least) is that a) we learn something about the character (even if it’s just that they throw up after moments of high stress, or whatever) and b) they form a plan or settle on a course of action that carries them into the next Conflict.
Think about the last film you watched, or the last book you read. Think about one of the really exciting or tense moments in it. In fact, let’s use an example, shall we? Examples are good.
I’ll use The Shawshank Redemption, because at this point I figure it’s old enough that most people have seen it and I don’t need to worry about spoilers. Plus, it’s the first film that popped into my head (because it’s one of my favourite films – and the last film I watched was Jack Reacher 2, which is only suitable as an example of how you ruin a franchise with a terrible sequel). There’s a scene in Shawshank in which the prisoners are tasked to work on a roof. It’s a hot day, and the work is hard. Andy Dufresne overhears Byron Hadley, one of the guards, talking about being taxed on inheritance, and offers his services in helping to legally shelter the money. But Andy is a prisoner – he is supposed to do his work, quietly, not eavesdrop on the guards’ conversation and insert himself into it.
Andy’s actions nearly get him thrown off the roof, but after some fast talking Andy arranges for him and his team of inmates to receive some cold beers in exachange for his financial services. The tense scene is resolved as the prisoners sit on the roof in the sun, drinking a beer like free men and – momentarily, at least – free of any of their worries.
In this example, everything from Andy overhearing the guards’ conversation to the moment when the shot finally cuts away to the beers being raised up onto the roof is the Conflict. The scene that follows, with Morgan Freeman’s voiceover telling us that “that’s how it came to pass, that on the second-to=last day of the job, the convict crew that tarred the plate factory roof in the spring of ’49 wound up sitting in a row at ten o’clock in the morning, drinking icy cold Black Label Beer courtesy of the hardest screw that ever walked a turn at Shawshank State Prison” forms the Comedown, as the work crew take a minute to decompress and relax, and ready themselves to continue with the job. And though it doesn’t happen immediately afterwards – because this is a film, not an RPG – this encounter leads directly to Andy doing taxes for half the guards in Shawshank, and that leads directly to him helping the warden embezzle money, which leads directly to Andy having enough money to live on once he eventually escapes.
This doesn’t just apply to films and books (and that’s a good thing, because applying this to things other than films and books is the entire damn thesis of this article). Look at something that may seem more relevant than Shawshank, because it’s both a game, and firmly in the fantasy/sci-fi genre – 2016’s reboot of DOOM. That whole damn game is based around Conflict and Comedown; you frantically run from demons, your goal in most conflicts to kill things before they kill you. Then, when it’s done, the doors open and you get a chance to catch your breath and figure out where to go next (hell, even the music calms down after a fight). Then, having made you decision, you head onwards – into the next Conflict. Repeat until the game ends. DOOM is one of the best-paced FPS games I’ve ever played, and that’s almost entirely due to this Conflict – Comedown structure.
So, how do we apply this to D&D? If you’re a good GM, you aren’t using your game in lieu of writing a novel. Your players have agency, they can do what they want, and – in theory – you don’t know how things are going to turn out.
And that’s fine. This structure actually increases a feeling of player agency – because, as I said above, when executed correctly each Comedown will lead organically to the next Conflict, so that players feel like the adventure they’re having and the obstacles they’re facing are a direct result of their own actions.
So let’s break it down, because I guarantee this is already happening naturally as your table – you just aren’t sure how to fully harness it yet, which results in that slowdown/fading of attention and interest that we talked about earlier.
Now, you may be thinking that I don’t need to talk about the Conflict part of this equation. That’s fighting, right? That’s killing things and looting rooms and searching for traps, right?
Wrong. Well, partially right, too. But not completely. Conflict (or the Scene, if you prefer) is any part of the game where your players interact with the fictional world with some kind of goal in mind. Sure, it might be fighting a Beholder Lich and half the party dying. But it could also be getting into an argument with the town guard, or trying to talk their way into somewhere they really shouldn’t be, or the skill challenge you ran when they were fleeing the exploding potato wagon. It’s the stuff that has a direct effect on the game. Remember, these moments include characters with a goal, some other force trying to prevent them attaining that goal, and a resolution of some kind – generally, success or failure.
Most GMs have the Conflict part sewn up tight, because the rules of the game tell you how to adjudicate it – and how to know when an encounter is over. It’s the Comedown that most often results in a game grinding to a halt, so that’s what we’re going to talk about for the rest of this article.
Firstly, be aware that you’re probably already doing at least some of this already. When your players chug potions and loot bodies and decide whether or nor they’re taking a short rest, they’re already in the Comedown. They’re reacting to what just happened. The problem comes when this goes on for too long, when they’re done reacting and ready for the next Conflict.
The single best thing you can do as a GM in my opinion (and if you don’t care about my opinion, why are you reading this?) is to simply shut up. In that moment, you’re no longer strictly playing the game. You’re there to answer any questions the players might have – how do I use hit dice, again? What’s the name of that crazy elf we’re trying to rescue? How many people can Slog the Bardbarian carry on his shoulders at once? – and that’s more or less it, until the Comedown is ready to end (and we’ll get to how you recognise that moment shortly).
The reason you need to shut up is simple; the Comedown is for you, too. You’ve just been juggling a lot of balls at once, and now they’ve all fallen down. You need to gather yourself, too – figure out what went well, and (more importantly) what didn’t. Pick out the things you’ll do differently in future and make a note of them. Pick out the things your players did that were awesome, or that gave you ideas for future encounters, and note them down. And just take a minute to breathe and rest your brain.
Ideally, you should be listening to your players while you’re shutting the hell up, in the same way you listen to Parks and Rec in the background when you’re planning your games. You aren’t fully paying attention, but you’re aware enough to know roughly what’s going on and when something funny happens.
You’re listening for two reasons. The first is the make a note of anything they say that you can use later. You know what I’m talking about – those little things that players say that fuel entire sessions later in the campaign, like their working theory that the person giving them the quest was actually a dragon in disguise, or that the world is all an elaborate dream of an aboleth, or that sometimes dogs are brown. You know.
The other reason is so that you can listen to the various plans they throw out, and figure out which one best fits with what you’d intended. (Some people might call this step ‘railroading’. Those people are wrong.) They’ll probably throw lots of ideas around, arguing themselves out of the really great ones and getting confused with the details of every individual plan. If left unchecked, this endless planning phase is where “we don’t know what to do” comes from. It’s where it breeds. Your job is to figure out when they’ve got a workable plan – even if it’s a bad one – and subtly push them into action.
Sometimes that’s as simple as inserting yourself back into the conversation. Rather than leading with “So, what do you do next?”, pick up on what they were talking about. “Cliff Brighthammer was talking about trying to scale the walls with your grappling hooks while Chanty Spellblade dimension doors into the guard hut. Is that what you want to do, or did you prefer Clint Smashmouth’s approach of kicking in the door and murder death killing everyone inside?”
By presenting the party with two options to choose from, you neatly sidestep the problem of option paralysis that occurs when players are told they can choose to do anything. Phrasing it in terms of “this, or this” narrows the options down and makes life easier.
You may still be thinking that this sounds an awful lot like railroading. If you are, let me tell you why you’re wrong. Crucially, it’s because the players still have agency. They’re free to ignore both the options you gave them and do something else – but they’re less likely to, because you’ve narrowed it down to an easy binary choice. And, because these were their ideas to begin with, there’s no sense that the GM is forcing their hand.
The other important thing to remember here is that you, as the GM, are the arbiter of both the rules of the game and the rules of the world. The internal logic of your game, the consistency that allows players to assess whether a harebrained scheme has a reasonable chance of success, is all represented by you. If you take two of their ideas and present them as options to move the game forward, there’s a tacit understanding there that those options have a reasonable chance of success if the rolls go well. It’s a dick move to present them with options that you e already decided are going to outright fail or backfire spectacularly. If they roll badly, then by all means present reasonable consequences – but the aim here is to keep things moving, not throw up impassable barriers.
It seems natural at this point to present you with an example from my own game to really drive the point home. And I have one – a really, really good one. The problem is that it took place early on in the game – the fourth session, to be exact – and that also happens to be where we’re up to with Friday Fight Night this week. So I’m afraid I’m saving it for that write-up, which you’ll be able to read on Friday. It’s a good one, though. I promise.
The hardest part of making this work is learning to recognise when things are slowing down, and knowing when to present the options. You don’t want to be the GM who cuts off the planning and reacting – the Comedown – to force the party to get on with things. It should feel natural, and the only way to achieve that is to practice.
My advice in this case is to err on the side of slowness initially. If things do grins to a halt – if you find yourself staring at your players as they look to you expectantly, it’s easy to give them what you see as their options and pick things back up again. What’s harder is dealing with a party whose plan just spectacularly backfired because you forced them into it before they were done with their Comedown. You’ll learn to recognise the signs that they’re ready to move on, and soon you’ll stop thinking about it and just do it.
One final bit of advice before I call this article done. This is all about pacing. Conflict -> Comedown. It only works if, once the group have had a chance to regroup and get their heads back in the game. Once it’s Go Time, make sure it’s actually Go Time. Don’t make getting to the part where they plan take an age, in which nothing happens, because that just breeds more dead tables.
If you want your players to be engaged, give them something to engage with. It’s that simple.