Ask this question to create ideas and mysteries that grab players’ attention

I like to generate ideas by taking two notions that strike my interest, but that seem impossible together, and then inventing ways to put the two notions together logically. Angry GM calls this game How Can this be True?

Like all dungeon fans, I like tombs filled with traps. Such places offer easy explanation. In the real world, Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang had architects construct crossbow traps to kill thieves who violated his tomb. (This emperor’s tomb helped inspire Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan.)

I also like dungeons with clues and puzzles that let clever looters bypass the death traps. Traps with clues make an irresistible combination, but they defy explanation. Why would someone build death traps, and then offer the hints needed to avoid the traps? In “5 reasons someone might build a dungeon filled with clues and tests,” I played a game of How Can this be True and offered 5 ideas.

By drawing players into a game of How Can this be True, you can capture their attention and set them looking for answers.

On the Table Top Babble podcast, game master Ruth Tillman told of hooking players through an unplanned game of How Can this be True. To create a game session, she took pieces from a few adventures and put them all together. One piece featured thugs with Yakuza tattoos who jump the characters. Her characters happened to be in Savannah, Georgia. “I needed a fight and I made the mistake of leaving in those guys and not changing their origin.” After the confrontation, the players found the mystery of Japanese mobsters in Georgia irresistible—more compelling than what Ruth had planned. She ran with the new angle.

When you play How Can this be True, you may also create a compelling mystery.

Your non-player character may need to draw attention to an incongruity. Few players solve a puzzle room in a dungeon, and then wonder why anyone would build the room. Such rooms have become a convention of Dungeons & Dragons that few question. But if the old sage wonders, the players will—especially if the learning the dungeon’s purpose becomes the key to some larger goal.

The television show Lost hooked viewers by putting a polar bear a tropical island and making them ask, “How can this be true?” Lost kept asking the question without ever giving viewers satisfying answers.

In your game, close the circle. Generate ideas by asking how can this be true, hook players by introducing the two elements that defy explanation, and then when they earn an explanation, reveal it.

5 thoughts on “Ask this question to create ideas and mysteries that grab players’ attention

  1. Styopa

    I’ll make it simpler: if you have a group that’s reasonably cerebral, simply throw some weird shit at them: their inherent paranoia will fill in the blanks. Listen, and decide if the adventure will go the way they suspect, and maybe throw in a left-turn at the end so it doesn’t seem like you were following their ideas, just that they were pretty good guessers.

    For example, one technique is stating the dull to turn their meta gaming against them: a man leaves an umbrella at a table in a restaurant (because why would you describe such a quotidian detail unless it mattered?!!)

  2. Jesse B

    I try to incorporate the ‘opposites’ mantra when I can in games. I like to offer things that on the surface seem implausible at best because I find that players will oftentimes insert a LOT more thought into something than I would have originally planned. In this way, I find the players are some of my best story
    building elements!

  3. brontoceratops

    This is how I create my own player characters. I come up with basic notions about possible characters I could play, then I take the two I most like and see if I can somehow weld them into one complex character. That’s how I created an aging supervillain-turned-hero, who was slowly losing control of his powers. 🙂

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