DMing with Stimulus-Response

Last time around, I talked about how I use Set Pieces to organize pieces of content when I DM (GM, Storytell, what have you). That works well for the “what” and “where” of my games, but the key piece of any tabletop RPG is really the “why”.  Why are the players murdering this soldier? Why are they robbing this orphan? Why do we even get together once a week just to pretend to be awful people for a few hours?

This time around, I want to answer one part of the question of why things happen. In keeping with my how-to-write-adventures theme, I specifically want to talk about presenting action to players as a form of stimulus.

As I’ve mentioned in Islands of Content, I run games that are fundamentally improvisational. I don’t plan extended arcs of events; I simply wait for an appropriate moment, then introduce a new Set Piece into play. It’s taken me a while just to get that idea clear in my head. Rifts is really the first time I’ve used set pieces that are truly detached from any specific context. It’s working well, for the most part.

Now that I’ve been doing it for an extended period, however, I’ve noticed that occasionally my set pieces fail to hook the players. I have a theory about why this happens. Let’s take an example of a set piece that, to be kind, underperformed:

Set Piece: Psi-Goats

In the Appalachian hills, a breed of goats have resumed mountain living. These creatures have experienced a psychic awakening and now possess limited psychic abilities (using Psi-Ponies powers from New West).

Flavour

Goats nimbly pick their way up and down the hillside and cliff, grazing idly. A few raise their heads to stare at you. In the distance, two males face each other down. They lower their heads, and bluish planes of light erupt from their horns. The two bucks crash together with a cracking noise. Their horns flare with light, and you get a shivering sensation down your spine.

Psi-goat ISP 20 HP 25 SDC 30 Att 3 In +3 Strike +2 Dodge +3 Roll +3
Ability Level Note
Front kick 2d6 SD
Back kick 4d6 SD
Psi-horn 2d6 MD Power headbutt (2 att): 4d6 MD
Ectoplasm 6/12 ISP Vapour/solid. Lasts 15 minutes
Impervious to Cold 2 ISP Lasts 1 hour. Requires d4 rds to start

What’s wrong with this?

Well, first, the goats are a noun without a verb. They exist, but there’s no implicit action here.

The players encountered the goats while trying to find a group of soldiers who had captured an NPC. They reached the area where the animals were grazing, and from their conversation I immediately realized that they weren’t interested in fighting. I had considered that possibility – they’d already had several difficult encounters during the adventure – but I completely failed to plan for what else they might do.

In this case, it was improv to the rescue, and I added a ledge along which they had to balance to avoid the goats. It wasn’t a great encounter, and a big part of why is that I neglected to treat the goats as a stimulus.

A stimulus is any thing (noun!) or event (verb!) that causes a response. Sometimes that response is very simple – the iris contracting against bright light, for example – and sometimes it’s very complex. In general, player responses are going to be very complex, and it’s necessary to deal with their reactions in advance if you want to be a good game designer.

What does a better version of the Psi-goat encounter look like? I’ve put the addition in italics

Set Piece: Psi-Goats

In the Appalachian hills, a breed of goats have resumed mountain living. These creatures have experienced a psychic awakening and now possess limited psychic abilities (using Psi-Ponies powers from New West).

Flavour

Goats nimbly pick their way up and down the hillside and cliff, grazing idly. A few raise their heads to stare at you. In the distance, two males face each other down. They lower their heads, and bluish planes of light erupt from their horns. The two bucks crash togethe with a cracking noise. Their horns flare with light, and you get a shivering sensation down your spine.

Running along the cliff  there is a narrow ledge. You can see that it is crumbling in places. Below the goats, the mountain drops off into another cliff face.

[Omitting stat blocks]

Not that different from how it actually played out, but there are three major things to notice:

  1. The ledge is now planned, and the flavour text tells the players what to expect in terms of challenge.
  2. The cliff below the goats is specifically mentioned, giving the players another option.
  3. There are now three ways forward, each placing slightly different demands on the characters

The players can also decide against taking this path, as always. Sometimes that’s even something you plan for!

In the same adventure, I had the players’ guides disappear one by one. There was no mystery to why – they had some issue back at their village, and they were going back to check. Had the players elected to return with them, they might have saved the village. I had planned, however, for the possibility that they would not, and when they did return, they found a massacre in progress, with only two members of the community surviving, and the party faced with a monstrous beast.

That’s a fine outcome, as games go. Drama comes out of raised stakes, and raising stakes means being willing to destroy things, even if you’ve worked hard to give them life in the first place.

It’s the response to the stakes that really matters to the DM. If you use the right stimuli, you can elicit responses that will keep everyone engaged and entertained.