Or, How to Get Your Players To Stand In Front of the Nice Big Target
The majestic steamship plowed through the frigid waters of the North Atlantic. Suddenly, out of the foggy darkness, an iceberg loomed. Unable to veer away in time, the ship struck the berg, rending its hull and flooding one of the forward hulls. As the crew worked frantically to save the ship and the stewards went from cabin to cabin assuring the passengers that all was well, but could they please proceed to the lifeboats in an orderly fashion, a strange droning noise was heard over the noise of creaking metal and panicked voices; a humming like a thousand giant hornets.
A mammoth airship appeared over the steamer, held aloft by a myriad propellers fixed on rows of vertical shafts. A hatch on the airship's underside opened, revealing a strange device emitting a magnetic ray which miraclulously checked the sinking of the steamship.
This was the point where our GM turned to us and said, "What do you do now?"
Cath, who with her husband Bryon were the usual Game Masters of the group I gamed with in Iowa, was starting a new adventure campaign set in Victorian times. (Cath, by the way, is an English teacher, and will probably kill me for the prose in that first paragraph. Sorry, Cath.) She wanted to use the Albatross as the campaign's base of operations; a fantastic flying machine, sort of the Victorian ancestor of the S.H.E.I.L.D. Helicarrier, from Jules Verne's Clipper of the Clouds by way of the Vincent Price movie Master of the World. Cath decided to start off by placing our characters on a steamship rescued by the Albatross. She wanted to keep things flexible, so she let us come up with why each of us was on the steamer and how we were to get onto the Albatross.
For Bryon, this wasn't a problem. He character was the captain of the Albatross. My Wacky Brother Steeve played a strong man and reformed jewel thief; he grabbed a rope, lassoed the understructure of the airship and climbed up to it. Bryon's buddy Doc was "A Surprising Old Indian" with magic powers; Doc transformed into an eagle and flew up to the airship. My character, a time-travelling inventor, was a little trickier, but he had an adventurous NPC daughter who climbed up the rope to investigate for herself and of course I had to follow.
That left Russ.
We turned to him expectantly, and he said, "There's no reason why my character would climb that rope."
Russ was one of the most genuinely nice people I've ever known; a jolly, cheubic little fellow with a squeaky voice and spindly legs too short for his roly-poly body. He was a Gilbert & Sullivan fan and a lover of P.G. Wodehouse. He also had a relentlessly logical mind; and when he role-played, he always ran his characters strictly in-character, sticking rigorously to the character's motivations and point of view. In this case, he played the Invisible Man and ran him as a fugitive, desperately trying to avoid notice, which would invaribaly lead to capture. It seemed like a cool character concept; except that it was a character who would not willingly risk attention by joining a group of adventurers.
This presented Cath with a problem. By trying to keep the plot flexible, she had wound up backing herself into a corner. The only way she could now get all the characters involved in the adventure was to have them climb the rope. "Russ," she said trying to keep her temper, "any minute now the crew will finish repairs on the ship. The airship will release it and it will sail away with you on board. If you don't climb the rope, you won't be a part of the adventure."
"I know," Russ said unhappily. "And I'll do it. I'm just telling you that there's no logical reason for my character to climb that rope."
"Just climb the rope, Russ."
Ever since, our group has referred to any action the characters have to perform to advance the game's plot as "Climbing The Rope".
- - - - -
Just about any role-playing game will have The Rope is some form or another. It could be the stranger you meet in the tavern with a map to the Lost Temple of Ahsh-Khash B'Ghash; it could be the robbery-in-progress you witness while patrolling the city in your Ferret-mobile; it could be the brunette knockout with the legs that won't quit, wanting to hire you to find her uncle who disappeared in the Amazon; it could be the old man and the kid who want you to take them and their droids to Aldebaran, no questions asked.
The old gaming magazine SHADIS had a regular feature printing capsule plot ideas called "Hook, Line and Sinker". The "Hook" was a brief, one-sentence description of the plot. The "Sinker" was a set of complications not immediately apparent to the characters. Between the two was the "Line", the information the players are given that brings them into the plot; in other words, the Rope. It's what Joseph Campbell referred to as "The Call to Adventure."
Of course, Unca Joe also pointed out that it's possible for the Hero to Refuse The Call, in which case events conspire to force the Hero on the Path To Adventure anyway. (Either that or it's going to be a very short Adventure).
I often refer to the prep work for my own games as "plotting" and think of myself as a storyteller, but the secret of gaming is that GM's don't create stories as much as they create opportunities; opportunities for adventure. It's up to the players to decide what to do with these opportunities. A role-playing game does tell a story, to be sure, but it's a collaborative, and somtimes a competitive, process; less like sitting around the campfire listening to the Old Storyteller and more like narrative volleyball.
Usually, getting the players to Climb the Rope is not a problem. After all, the reason they're playing the game in the first place is to have an adventure. In fact, when I was running my Teenagers From Outer Space campaign, frequently my group would sieze on the little pieces of business I'd throw out to mark time while I was setting up the real plot and they'd start building their own plot out of it. Then I'd have to scramble to keep ahead of them, like the scene from "The Wrong Trousers" where Grommit the dog is riding on the front of a toy locomotive and frantically laying down track in front of it as it goes along.
Other times, the players need encouragement. Like the stereotypical method actor, they'll ask "What's my motivation?" This is actually a good thing, because it means the players are getting into character and ideally will result in a better game. It can also be annoying, especially when it messes up all your beautiful plans.
There are three methods to get your players involved with the plot: The Carrot, The Stick and The Pool of Piranhas.
The Carrot is pretty obvious; offer the players some sort of benefit or reward for their action. "I'll give you each a thousand gold pieces if you'll rid the town of those bandits." The reward doesn't have to be monentary; it could be an appeal to honor or responsibility; or it could be as simple as the classic line from "A Fistful of Yen": "Ah, but you'll have the chance to kill 50, maybe 60 people."
The Stick provides some unpleasant consequences if the players don't act, and works well in conjunction with the Carrot "Jabba the Hutt wants the money you owe him and he wants it now!" "Nah, the cops aren't going to catch the real killers, the cops think YOU did it!" "The German Army will be here within a week unless we can blow up this bridge!"
The Pool of Piranhas gives the players no alternative. "Suddenly you are attacked by a band of orcs. What do you do?" If your players absolutely refuse to bite on any of the plot hooks you dangle in front of them, have the plot bite back. This carries the risk of Railroading, true, but sometimes that's what it takes to get them up the Rope.