controlling the mail, or Tommy Tutone’s Rule of Game Mastery

In a recent session, players were frustrated with the low flow of information. In response to PC queries, NPCs didn’t give enough or the right kind of information or give it quickly enough.

Once I admitted to myself I had made mistakes, I set out to learn from them: how to control the “mail” to create drama and PC engagement, instead of boring or confusing scenes and (unintentional) power struggles with players. Here’s what I learned:

  • Listen to the players.

  • A lack of clarity is frustrating.

  • A lack of drama is boring.

  • Show them.

  • Demand a response.

  • Hook the characters.

  • Live and learn.

Listen to the players.

“I hate these lizardpeople!”

a player in my game muttered, laughing. This was the first sign we weren’t connecting. I thought players would love these lizardpeople!

If I wasn’t stuck on the problem being the players’, I could’ve turned my surprise into curiosity:

Why do you hate them?

Do the rest of you feel that way?

This would have slowed the action down, but it would’ve information. Information about how the both the characters and players were experiencing these NPCs.

Information I could have used to make the players hate the lizardpeople for more interesting reasons!

A lack of clarity is frustrating.

The players were frustrated because their characters truly needed the lizardpeople’s help—having arrived unarmed, unarmored, and with no other supplies. But, in response to their questions, the lizardpeople repeatedly hesitated and gave each other tense and meaningful looks before offering only short responses. In one context, this behavior might be dramatic and interesting. In another--the context I actually provided--it was just annoying.

The context I intended to provide was this. The players interrupted a bitter argument between the NPCs. In fact, this argument reflected a divide that threatened to tear their whole village apart. It had to do with what the NPCs knew was about to happen. But I didn’t set this context clearly enough. Players weren’t engaged and couldn’t get curious.

How could I have made this context clearer? Offer more details. Paint a clearer picture. The regular text below are the details I did provide. The italics are details I could’ve added:

  • hesitation in answering

  • sharp-eyed glances

  • bitter remarks from one NPC to another

  • put downs, spoken as if the other wasn’t there

  • brooding silence

  • folded arms

  • derisive huffs and snorts

Doesn’t this full list feel more like an interrupted argument?

Then again, more and better details might be clearer. But is it any more engaging?

A lack of drama is boring.

In his video, “Lore vs Writing,” Matt Colville said, “Lore is boring. Writing is dramatic.” That is, information about your world is boring--players don’t care--unless you share it in a dramatic context.

Take for example, a phone number. A phone number is boring. Except for 867-5309.

The story, the longing, the uncertainty of what will happen next make this phone number dramatic.

So GMs, wrap all your campaign world’s phone numbers in drama and uncertainty, and the players will remember those digits! They’ll care about them. That’s Tommy Tutone’s Rule of Game Mastery.

So I could’ve told players:

Your knock on the door interrupted a bitter argument. The lizardperson sitting at the table is staring daggers at the other, who stands, shoulders slumped, with red-rimmed eyes.

It doesn’t get any clearer than that. It’s certainly more interesting and dramatic than what I actually shared with my players.

To be fair to myself, the PCs needed the lizardpeople’s help. There was drama in the open question: Will they help us or not?

But even so, why should players care if NPCs they’ve never met were just arguing? Would they care to uncover the reasons for the argument—the “phone number”? If they did learn the reasons and the stakes for the village, would they also find compelling stakes for their characters to act?

Or would they simply notice the GM dropping breadcrumbs and feel obligated to bite?

Show them.

Why hide the argument?

Herk (to PCs, bowing): Honored guests, I apologize. Our hospitality is wanting. You have come on an inauspicious night.

Sung (snorts derisively and mutters): ‘Inauspicious night’? More like ‘cowardly night.’ (Louder, too loudly. To PCs.) Tell me, travelers, is it better to live life on the run, trusting powerless gods to protect you? Or is it better to stand with honor and fight?

Aaron Sorkin said, backstories don’t matter. Characters are born the moment they walk on stage, and they die as soon as they leave it. An argument in the past doesn’t matter. I needed to show the players what I wanted them to know. I should’ve let the NPCs argue in front of them.

Demand a response.

But why just show them an argument and wait for them to get curious? Why not also drag them into it?

“Tell me, travellers…” puts them on the spot. It demands a response. They could agree with Sung or disagree, taking Herk’s side. They could take a third position. Most likely, they’d not risk taking any position, but instead would diplomatically ask questions. In which case, Sung could press them harder. Or dismiss them as cowards like her mother, Herk. Or lunge at Herk with a knife! Or do none of those. I could simply let the players’ questions deescalate the situation, being pleased enough that players are engaged and interested.

The GM is Tommy Tutone. I can’t lose my nerve. I gotta make the call—address players, demand a response—if I want to make em mine.

Hook the characters.

These lizardpeople could be arguing about anything. But two characters in the party care about the gods. That’s ultimately why I wanted them to discover what the argument was about. (Again, why did I hide it!?)

Oramir the Seer
OUT: The bright gods touched me and blinded my right eye.
Background: Successfully defended Guanyin’s Kruko Temple in Glitterhagen from a Cursed Merchant attack on the 1,000th year festival.

Stink
OUT: In a forgotten basement of the Divine Emperox's Cathedral is a dusty, cobwebbed little shrine...to Stink.
Background: As deacon in Cult of Mad Potato God, served in the Victorious Worship on 1st of Jubilation.

There’s a third, a necromancer, who belongs to a faction that considers necromancy to be a faith and aims to secure necromancers’ freedom to practice their faith.

Sung just insulted all three of them along with her mother. (Or would have, had I learned this lesson sooner.)

And the other players are heroes. One belongs to a faction known far and wide as, “The Defenders”!

This is an argument the players would have cared about, had I showed it to them. Their characters’ identities would’ve been challenged, their reputations on the line. This, in addition to being asked a direct question.

Again, Tommy Tutone’s not calling just anyone: “Hey, you!” He’s calling Jenny.

Live and learn.

In the end, I’m pleased I had many of the right pieces. I just left most of them in the box. I didn’t take them out and put them all together right in front of the players. But the mistake produced high-quality information, so next time, I’ll do better.

The phone number? The name of Herk’s god. The drama? Well, you’ll just have to wait and see.

Be sure to check out another related video of Matt Colville, called “Information.” I rewatched it while I was troubleshooting the session.

If this post was helpful, hit me up on Twitter: @clarkkristofor. And you might like a short, sweet, and on-sale product on DriveThruRPG: “The dwarf underworld city of Chasm.” When you buy it, you’re leaving me a little tip. Plus you get a cool location to drop into your 13th Age (or any other system) campaign.