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Most of this week, I have been focusing my attention on "A Race Through Dark Places," my GenCon Online blog set in Fioracitta. This weekend has been a real test of all those principles I've been using, especially the hypnotic storytelling. Welcome to Fioracitta This map is a detail from a region map created by Jim Abbott for Fioracitta, The Heart of Power. The adventure takes place in Escharro (bottom centre left). The six player characters are:- Amares - Adventurer / Entertainer, who works in The Painted Mask in Lascha East District. Loves to scout ahead while adventuring. Keeps their adventuring and professional lives separate. Kepina Chauput - Bestia Adventurer. Originally from the Chauput Valley in Fourche, but has been hearing a psychic Call for years, originating somewhere here. Literally walked from Fourche to Itarra, following The Call. Maghe' Piccuri - Adventurer / Celebrity. Brash, charismatic, larger than life, this renowned actor from Lascha East may be hiding a few secrets behind his in-your-face persona. Padana di Sottibo - Adventurer / Rescue Worker, this sleek Longane is equally at home in the waters of the River Cariccia and Lake Lascha as she is the streets of Fioracitta. Currently employed by the Guardia, and is also a member of The Lakeside Warriors (a rescuer and mystic). Turan Charesi - Adventurer / Family Man about town. The best-dressed member of the party. On call by the Family he belongs to (the Charesi) to take care of matters which require his unique brand of diplomacy. Zurhan al-Turaph - Adventurer / Benedittara Animist, Zurhan is a typical magician with piercing eyes, whose flowing, graceful movements almost make him appear like one of the spirits he interacts with. The Prompts "A Race Through Dark Places" was a one-shot adventure run twice over the course of GenCon Online 2021, on a dedicated Discord server. Both sessions were, in effect, the same story. The initial prompt was this image:- In the end, some of the unused prompts included these images:- # The Adventure "A Race Through Dark Places" opened with the player characters boarding the ferry from Vindia to Birigna, stopping at Escharro before heading off to Teldatta, Orchudo Island, and Birigna, before making its long journey back to Vindia. There had been disappearances around Escharro, coinciding with bizarre phenomena surrounding the Magetti Estate, which was only accessible via a lakeside boat dock cut into the native rock of Escharro. Rumours included a possible hidden Venea temple, a secret meeting place of the Dragons of Shadow (a secret society set up during the Bragoni Conquest of Fioracitta), and brigands. The characters met the owners, Aldo and Genti Rubeno, and their majordomo and factotum, Pilor Garic, a Macenti. For this mission, I bought some mansion floorplans from DrivethruRPG rather than create my own Villa Magetti. This was the ground floor plan which greeted the players. Hypnotic Storytelling Tips Here are some of the hypnotic tips used to immerse the players into the action. Revivification Have you ever described something so vividly that you find yourself losing all sense of where you are, and immersing yourself in the memory as though you were living it? This is known as revivification, and it is the workhorse of all hypnotic techniques. The basic principle here is "Where attention goes, energy flows." Second Person Narrative Addressing each player as "you" is a powerful narrative technique. Don't be afraid to use "you" in the in-character chat. Your players' unconscious minds quickly pick up that it's they who are being addressed, not the players. This leads to revivification, and players living out the adventure as though they were there. Appeal to The Senses Sense memory is your best friend. Allow evocative details to fill the narrative - the rich floral scents of a garden, the cool of the lake water on bare feet, the taste of cool clean drinking water going down your throat, the sounds of ravens overhead; or the scent of blood (those who've smelled blood will flinch, and others will just imagine), or fire, or the sounds of movement in a corridor which is supposed to be empty, dusty soft scraping and swishing, coming closer down the dry floorboards ... You Are The Problem Solver The NPCs are not the problem solvers. The players are. Or rather, the unconscious minds. The mind is a natural problem solver, and if there is a situation where there are two disparate clues, the unconscious will put them together and find a connection, somehow. Newbie GMs, here's a hint from an old GM. Let them make the connection. You'll find that most of the time, the adventure takes a sharp turn away from your plotted narrative if the characters (i.e. the unconscious minds of the players) solve the problem in their heads, talk about it, and come up with a rough idea of what is going on. Nine times out of ten, if you've laid down a carefully-scripted narrative, whether it is a mystery, a conspiracy, or a room full of monsters, the unconscious minds are going to figure it out. They are going to look right through any schemes you come up with. Figuring it out is the point. It's half the fun. Want to know what the other half of the fun is? Letting the players come up with a plan that saws your plan into little bitty pieces, then executing it. Last Thoughts On "A Race Through Dark Places" Everything I described above came true. I felt it happen, right before my very eyes. Remember - your players are going to be smart. A lot of them have been GMs before, and want to run characters rather than run games because, deep down, they want to win something. It's got to be meaningful. It's got to justify the characters' being there. Most of all, they want to feel like the heroes. Which they are. Being a Games Master is a hard job. Deep down, you've got to love one thing - the looks on the players' faces, the sound of their voices, when you present them with a story they can sink their teeth into. They can put in a personal stake in the adventure. They will want to get to a happy ending, where happy endings are not guaranteed unless they make it happen. The rewards are there. Hard won, sometimes with deep personal losses - injuries, Tenacity loss, fatigue - but when they can come away feeling that they have won every single Experience Roll, where they have spent those Luck Points and it has made all the difference, then you will have done a great job, and brought smiles to the players' faces. And if the game's more than a one-shot, but a multi-session story or even part of a campaign, that will bring them back to the table to see how it turns out next time. And in the end, that's the best reward you can live for, as a Games Master.
Last week's post covered the quest of the Games Master to stay relevant, and the introduction of hypnosis as a tool of Games Mastery; immersion; and the capabilities of the conscious and unconscious minds. This week, we move on to actual use of hypnosis in storytelling and in gaming, as used by the Games Master. The ABS Formula The crucial element of hypnosis is called the ABS Formula. It can be broken into three parts: Engage the Attention; Bypass the Conscious Mind; Stimulate the Unconscious. Engage The Attention The initial stage of hypnotic storytelling, this involves drawing the players' attention to the task at hand - beginning the game, allowing the story to unfold. You know that this stage is complete when all of the players are fosucing on you, and at that point you can begin to draw them into the game. Bypass the Conscious Mind This is the stage where you are bypassing the conscious censor and getting through to the unconscious mind to prepare it to create the inner environment In regular hypnosis, this would be the stage where the hypnotist engages the subjects in a formal trance induction. However, this is hypnotic storytelling, and the objective is not a trance state but the engagement of the players as their characters, living out the scenario. Bringing The Players Into Your Dream One way to begin the process of revivification is to ask the players a single question about their character; one which is designed to increase their focus, and to concentrate their unconscious' attention that they exhibit revivific Stimulate the Unconscious This is the part where you and the players' unconscious work together to create the inner environment in the players' minds to match the environment within your own. Here is where the players' minds are sufficiently focused for immersion to take place and for play to begin. Prep Work Strange New World This is an exercise from the Hypnosis Training Academy. Its aim is to encourage creativity, a vital ingredient in Games Mastery. Start with a random object - an egg, a book, a cup - and start imagining its environment. Is it in a nest? How big or small is it? Where is the nest? In a hedgerow? On a cliff ledge, or high atop a tall building like a tower? When I started with this exercise, I imagines a peregrine falcon's nest, and a pair of falcons, in the crenellatioins of a tower - the tallest tower in a city. I began to work out the details of what the tower looked like - it was square, made of brick, with a building below it, and a massive public square. That public square became populated with people, brightly coloured in Renaissance-style garb, reminiscent of characters from the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck (in particular the II and III of Wands, the Queen and King of Cups, the Knight of Pentacles, the IX of Pentacles, and the VII of Swords. I furnished this august public square with fountains, added sex workers hanging around them, and placed a church across the way - facing a brothel directly opposite. Thus was born Piazza Derisola, the so-called Hanging Garden in Fioracitta. Part of this exercise involved me going first, entering a light trance (easy enough, once you learn self-hypnosis) and putting myself in the mind of a Magnate, perhaps the artisan from the II of Wands, holding a globe in his hand, gazing out at the Piazza Derisola, thinking of the business he had in hand, and the person he was expecting to meet there for a clandestine meeting ... Revivification This is another advanced hypnotic technique. Revivification is a state of mind where the mind is so engaged in something - remembering, usually - that they lose awareness of their surroundings. Hypnotic Games Mastery begins by including revivifying elements into your world building. Make your world setting compelling enough, through including sensory elements from the players' memories, that they can't help but be drawn in and practically feel the cobbles of the street beneath their feet. Describe a riot of scents of various cooking meats from the vendors preparing hot foods on the periphery of a market; the singsone voices of the stallholders hawking their wares; the seagulls' cries overhead, competing with the turbulent human babble below. Chances are, every player will have some sort of scent memories to draw from - and in your worldbuilding, strive to bring those memories to life by fanning the embers of their memories to bright flames with your words. Drawing The Players Into Your Dream So now you have the elements in place to induce revivification, you need to catalyse the players' focus. Annd you do this by asking each player one question. What makes your character happy? Once they begin answering the question, keep the ball rolling for each player by encouraging them to delve deeper. You can do this very simply, through support sounds - "Mm-h'mm," "Ah," "Cool," "Excellent" - and with the simple phrase "Go on." Observing Signs of Increasing Focus As the players get more involved in their characters, perhaps to the point where they are living their lives, walking a mile in their shoes as it were, observe their body language. If it looks as if they are not paying that much attention to you, but rather focusing on the character; and if they are making little gestures from picking up an orange to the act of drawing a polishing cloth across a blade; then you can begin the adventure. Maintaining Focus Maintain focus in the game by investing in the characters, and giving them plenty to do - and that means breaking the old habits of "team leader / party tank / cleric healer / mage artillery / rogue backstabber / ranger for the ranged combat" everybody seems to fall into. Give your characters advance knowledge. Have them encounter people who possess knowledge about their destination. Don't make every single encounter about combat - make them memorable by having the players engage with sentient beings as people. Many times, the unconscious mind will help by conjuring up the people your characters encounter. Throw the stereotypes out of the window. Your orc encounter in the wilderness - they're going home laden with fish and birds from a successful bit of foraging, and they are singing a victory song to let their husbands know that tonight, they dine like kings. That wandering beast is following a trail left by a wounded animal: it has no interest in the characters. That sorcerer is heading for the players' town, with their retinue of male and female acolytes. They recently cast an enchantment to permanently become non-binary, and they are going into town to avail themselves of their spells to the townsfolk who need them - Enhance CHA, Sculpt Flesh, and Shapechange (to non-binary). Make the encounters into stories. The unconscious informs the conscious mind through stories. Stories are about conveying meaning - and your unconscious can grasp your intent as Games Master, and actually help you to carry out your job of delivering an engaging and rewarding game. Their unconscious minds can manifest these encounters, and the players will perceive them with their mind's eye. This is engaging their imagination hypnotically, and if you exercise your imagination and leave the combat section of the core rulebook to gather a little dust, you'll be able to engage the players' imagination and keep them immersed until the moment you bring them back in the room to hand out the Experience Rolls.
In the world of 2021, between the lure of video games and the rise of solo roleplaying where game engines have been developed to emulate the Games Master's role, the role of the Games Master can sometimes feel precarious. A tabletop game dies if the players desert - but even a single player can enjoy a solo game if they have a solo engine / GM-in-a-box book to automate the GM's role. Games Masters need to up their game, nowadays, more than ever. This is where the fine art of storytelling comes in. In he earliest days of tabletop roleplaying, where all the Games Master (who used to be called the Dungeon Master before DM assumed a different meaning nowadays) had to do was just randomly create a dungeon and moderate technical queries about what a player could or could not do, their job was relatively simple and involved consultation of the Dungeon Master's Guide for what could, and could not, be done. However, you can now consult all sorts of online resources yourself for answers, meaning that the Games Master's role of provider of technical feedback is now redundant. That leaves them with the role of story creator / adventure creator, and the market demands a lot more effort nowadays. Fortunately, the Games Master has access to storytelling tools, which have existed for a long time, unnoticed and generally unused. One of those storytelling tools is hypnosis. Hypnosis You may be feeling a little disconcerted right now. Hypnosis is a scary topic for some of you here. Your characters probably suffered at the hands (or the gaze) of some vampire or sorcerer whose commands were laced with a sorcery spell such as Dominate - or even worse, Enslave - forcing Hard Willpower checks to resist the glare of their dread hypnotic eyes. However, it is not so bad. Every person has the capacity to go into a trance. Everybody can be hypnotised. In fact, you are likely to have experienced hypnosis personally, every time you picked up a game core rulebook or supplement, and found your mind going through an adventure or just taking in the scenery if it's a compelling sandbox environment you end up in. Have you ever been interrupted while you've been totally immersed in a thing, and had to experience waking up from reading such a book in depth, and blinking, and staring in a state of shock trying to work out what the person who interrupted you is saying? Congrats. What you got woken up from was a trance, and the person who interrupted you was an insensitive clod. Hypnosis is like that, and it is so easy to learn storytelling tools to keep the players engrossed and immersed in the setting, and make Gamesmasters relevant. Immersion When you are creating a setting for an adventure or a campaign, or establishing a setting for sandbox play, you are setting up something for the players to immerse themselves into. Each player has an unconscious mind working behid the scenes; and it is when the unconscious mind is engaged that the players become immersed in the world, the scene unfolds about them, and they become their characters. Your job, as Games Master, is to learn to do this consistently. And yes, it is a skill. Fortunately, it's a skill you can learn really quickly. Put your granddad's fob watch away. You won't need it. Unconscious Mind It is not the "subconscious mind," no matter what you heard or read from whatever sources. It's the conscious and the unconscious. The conscious is what you're probably using right now to argue with me. The unconscious is the bit you use all the time, but are unaware of - that's why it's called the unconscious. The term subconscious implies that it is somehow beneath the conscious mind, perhaps even subservient to it. It is nothing of the sort. Modern psychology uses the model of the iceberg to describe how the conscious and the unconscious work. You remember the old myth that humans only use 10% of their brains? Any medical surgeon could tell you that humans use 100% of their brains - but any competent psychologist will tell you that they use only 10% of their minds for conscious thought. The other 90% is the unconscious mind. The unconscious is where your imagination comes from. Literally. It builds up images and crafts sensations from your memories, and then runs them in your mind, creating from scratch things which only exist because you have remembered something similar in the past. Example: Imagine you're walking up towards your front door. All the familiar sounds, sensations, sights from memory are running in your mind. Describe what you see to yourself. Now when you open the door and step inside, you're not in your home any more - you're inside a glowing palace of stained glass windows and ceiling, a cathedral with a vast floor, a flat plain dappled with a million colours of light filtered by the glass, a light which comes from the sun far above you. There are scents: incense, burning orange blossoms, wine ... Now come back here, and remember what you just experienced. The unconscious constructed that for you. Your job, as Games Master, is to work with the unconscious mind to create such scenes for them. The players' unconscious mind ... and your own. The Conscious Censor and The Power of Perversity Some of you might have just asked "But what if I don't like the smell of orange blossoms?" or "What if I've never smelled orange blossoms?" Fear not. That's the conscious mind talking. The conscious is, literally, a shield against all the data impacting on the unconscious mind. If the unconscious had to process everything all at once, it would break down. Nothing would get done. The conscious mind, the bit that responds when someone says "you" to them, the bit that thinks it is the main part of the mind: that's just a buffer, capable of holding no more than between 5 and 9 things in short term memory at one time. When someone mansplains, or when they are being an insufferable smart alec - they're dwelling in their conscious mind. That is not "the highest expression of human or civilised thought" that rationalists think it is. In fact, it is a staggeringly illogical mindset, because it can hold so few facts, like having a supercomputer which you can only access through an interface whose core is a Raspberry Pi. The conscious' main job is literally to censor and delete the imagination. You cannot live in an imaginary world all the time, and sooner or later you have to disengage from that and focus on the boring day to day minutiae of the here and now, such as washing the dishes and filling out the tax forms. Or arguing over inerpretations about a trivial ruling in the back pages of some core rulebook. Continued next week