Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Elephant, The Foreign Object, and a Long Cup of Coffee

You remember that old joke, "How do you hide an elephant in a jelly bean jar? Paint its toenails."

For purposes of this writing, anyway, that joke makes a lot more sense than you might suspect.

Warning: Clumsy Despoilerization Ahead

It was a read-through of The Laundry's adventure book, Black_Bag_Jobs, that inspired this.

Two quick steps pastward: The Laundry is based on Charles Stross's book series, Tales From The Laundry Files about a modern-day bureaucratic agency which is tasked with suppressing supernatural threats. Essentially, it's a modern-day take on the Call of Cthulhu campaign, and it uses Chaosium's Basic Roleplaying system, a well-meaning generic, to go about its business.

One step futureward: Black_Bag_Jobs is a book containing five adventures in that campaign world. One of the adventures, The Signal, involves something contemporary, but otherwise made-up to avoid lawsuit trouble. This to me was a warning flag: It was made up specifically for this adventure, so the players will likely fixate on it as an important thing—and they'd be right.

I regard this as a bad thing, or at least a thing that needs a little make-up. As a GM, I like it when my players are right, but I hate it when they're right with that little work.

Discussion of the problem is important, but by the same token specifically naming the minor thing is anathema—it doesn't just spoil the adventure for anyone who'd play it later (hence, "despoilerization"), it literally defeats the purpose of writing this mess in the first place. So I've got to not do that.

And if you plan on running the adventure, have read through it, and know what contemporary thing I'm talking about? Well, that just underscores the need for this article, don'tcha know.

How do you hide the elephant in the room?

Any given adventure will have references and tidbits that, ordinarily, may seem insignificant and inconsequential. Some of those otherwise insignificant details are actually the crux and major factor in the plot. This is not the problem.

The problem is this: If the players see a detail that is decidedly foreign or out of place, then they will immediately recognize it as a plot point and focus on it. Any attempt to sneak the minor-seeming point past the players will immediately raise red flags, and that relationship is inversely proportional: the more minor the obviously foreign point seems, the more the players will likely focus on it.

Think of that minor-seeming foreign point as the elephant, and think of the adventure as the room. Yes, in fact, we are talking about the elephant in the room, the thing so glaringly obvious and out of place that no player worth his salt will ignore once he notices it.

So. Elephant. Room. How do you hide the former in the latter?

Floral-print elephant cozy?

I admit it, this was the first idea that came to mind in answer to the general "elephant in the room" question rather than the question about the specific plot point. What this says about my ability to hide elephants is left as an exercise for the reader.

The "floral-print elephant cozy" represents a disguise. It means concealing the nature of whatever the major plot point is and making it blend in much better. That minor-looking foreign point looks much less foreign, and therefore could be overlooked. It's not until closer inspection later, either out of curiosity or when further attention is drawn to it, that the players would (ideally) think of looking under the cozy.

When the time is right, and the players realize they should look under that cozy, the exclamations of "Aaaah! Elephant!" should be music to the GM's ears, so to speak.

Hide it behind a bigger elephant?

This wasn't the only variation of this I thought of; "set the room on fire" also came up as a possible answer.

The "bigger elephant" represents a misdirection. It's not a disguise because it doesn't cover up the essential nature of the original elephant. Instead, it draws attention away from the original elephant by being more demanding of peoples' attention. It's far more noticeable and will likely get concentrated on first.

Similarly, setting the room on fire would draw peoples' attention away from everything other than either escaping the room or putting out the fire, depending how nice the furniture is. I mean, who doesn't love a nice overstuffed chair?

There is a danger, though; it's just a small step from this variant to...

Hide it behind a bigger koala bear!

This represents misdirection gone horribly wrong. And depending on what kind of adventure you're running, this could either be awesome sauce or fail-naise. A misdirection this heinous will not merely demand attention, it will scream for it until the GM stops the car. You might find the game bogged down by how much attention the thing is getting, because the players will poke at it and prod at it because this thing is just... so... gosh... darned... fluffy.

The problem of getting the adventure back under-way will be compounded if, upon being shown the elephant at last, the players say "Yeah, that's an elephant. But check out this koala bear—it's enormous!

Fill the room with elephants

This represents hiding in plain sight. The minor thing which is foreign now escapes notice not because it's disguised, nor because it's upstaged, but because it's no longer foreign. It's surrounded by things that look a lot like it, so while it may be noticed, it's just one of the crowd and might not be thought of as strange at first.

It's not until later, when the players' attentions are drawn to that one particular elephant, that they'll notice the zipper, pull it back, and discover it was an enormous koala bear all along. At that point, the game should be well afoot.

No matter which you choose, don't start doing it just yet!

Believe it or not, you're going to save yourself some work, and make your work look a lot less obvious t'boot if you consider the whole adventure or campaign series as a whole first.

Now how do you hide the room the elephant is in?

Note: Black_Bag_Jobs isn't actually a campaign book; it just has a series of adventures in it. There isn't anything really connecting them, so the GM could run them in whatever series he likes, leave some out, stick others in between, etc. Or just run one.

Above, I talk at length about the ways in which a small-but-significant plot point can be made to escape notice. If you're running a campaign or adventure series, though, you have the same problem all over again on a different scale.

A whole new meaning to the phrase "murder a cuppa"

For example, let's say that the crucial crux of a given adventure is a specific brand of coffee shop: the Stellathrō Coffee chain, which has its product and derivatives on every street corner, in every cooler, and on every supermarket shelf.

(Yeah, I'm going to change names to avoid lawsuits. Like a madman. So you'd better hang onto something.)

In terms of the discussion about the elephant, you may have referenced other coffee shops that the players would have heard of during the course of the adventure: the Thompsons Gazelle Coffee chain, Tom Hot-One's Coffee, the local mom-and-pop outfit Café Legato, etc. In other words, you've chosen to hide the one coffee chain the players should be suspicious of in a whole herd of other coffee shops.

Pull the camera back and look at the bigger picture, and suddenly you have the same problem on a much larger scale. Adventure without mention of coffee, adventure without mention of coffee, adventure without mention of coffee, and suddenly coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coff-eeeeeeee! Coffee is practically pouring out of the woodwork. Obviously, coffee will be significant in that one, and the players' attention will be drawn to the element if not the specific maguffin the adventure has in mind.

"Hiding in plain sight" works a treat

As I seem to say a lot, "the linguists call it 'smear'"—as language itself tends to follow patterns which fall across more than one word, so adventures make more sense when common elements are spread across them.

Those coffee shops which seem to pop up a lot in one adventure? They should make passing appearances all throughout the campaign. What feels like a gangly, ungainly herd when jammed into a single adventure instead becomes a humanizing touch when spread across several adventures, and that's how I'd do it too.

From the very first adventure, different coffee shop chains would get occasional mention. During an adventure before the one in which it's actually significant, I'd have a dispute between two characters about which coffee shop is "better" because sometimes people argue things like that.

By the time the adventure in which the coffee shop actually becomes critical rolls around, coffee shops will be commonplace, to the point that at least one of the PCs would hear that Stellathrō is up to no good and immediately exclaim, "Noooooo! Janice, my favorite barista! How could you betray me?"

The others work too, pretty much

You might wonder how something could be set up in one adventure to misdirect in another, but that's easy. All it has to do is convince the players, through its presence or actions, that it's more important than whatever the minor foreign plot point is. The NPC the players love to hate, the pending emergency that blossoms forth into hysteria, etc.

As for disguises, that's going to depend a lot on what you're trying to disguise and how you're going to disguise it.

Getting back to the coffee shop example, it might make sense to blame the coffee shops in the area if coffee drinkers in the area get assaulted by schlorping horrors of various shape and size. At least, it would make sense up until someone who's come out of an ice cream shop gets attacked too. Then the players have a good chance of realizing that it's not the coffee that's getting people attacked, it's the milk—and everyone from those coffee places ordered lattés!

Of Gamemasters, Magicians, and Mystery Authors

Ultimately, it's up to you to decide what works best on a case-by-case basis. That means considering the players, considering the maguffin, and doing the work to smooth the wrinkles and creases out of whatever you're using to cover the maguffin until the right time.

Remember also that ultimately there must be a right time for the reveal. As GM, keeping the thing hidden so the players never get to see it, react to it, and stop it from whatever ugly thing is going to happen as a result of it having its way, is a Bad Thing To Do. It'd be like a mystery author who starts with a death in the first chapter, goes through a novel-length investigation, and never reveals who dun it. Unsatisfying? Yes. That's the problem.

Of course, you realize this means pink pages.

If you have an adventure series planned out, in which you've stuck one or two canned adventures (say, from the likes of Black_Bag_Jobs), then you're going to have to do a touch of creative editing. Not a whole lot, necessarily, and for sure not so much that those adventures added-to have their solutions altered, but some. You may find you have a whole bunch of seemingly minor references to add in, like layouts of bathrooms, models of MP3 player, musicians that nobody's heard of, new NPCs, etc., and you may find yourself trading certain things around in order to combine elements, separate elements, and just make everything sit right in series.

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