Saturday, March 11, 2017

More thoughts on writing Modules (Design Post) - Part 1

I have been busy. Very busy. So busy, indeed, that my brain denied any kind of after-work activity for the last couple of weeks. Thus the neglecting of the blog. Sorry about that. It'll pass, as it always does ... When I have the time and the capacity right now, I push forward with Monkey Business instead of being productive here. So there's that, too. But it overlaps with things I want to write about here, so please consider my thoughts about the process of writing a module. It turned out a bit rambling ...

Tone

Let's start with that. Who do you write for? Yourself? People aiming to DM it? Previewers? Do you write it for use at the table or for those reading stuff like that for leisure (I mean, let's be real, the majority of us read rpg material for leisure, not to actually use it!). There are debates about this. Not enough public debates, but they are there ... 

A closer look, then: writing it for yourself seems counterintuitive at first, but so seems writing a book and that definitely happens a lot. It begs the question: what kind of medium of expression are adventure modules. For example, a guy got molested in high school and writes an adventure as part of his therapeutic process to digest the horrible experience. Sounds fair enough to me. I'd read it and I might consider playing something like that. If I think it's any good.

And that's another thing. Regardless of the intention behind the written thing, it'll always be read as potential gaming material. But context does matter (see example above), it's just barely talked about because, let's face it, most publications that cost you a pretty penny are written to serve a market. And if you write it with the market in mind you'll most certainly have other priorities than the potential DM that bought it.

A hug is a hug, right? [source]
So although you always somehow talk to the DM reading it to use it, you'll most likely focus on the dressing. Nice pictures, professional layout, good "social media marketing" ... the works. Of course we do have phenomena like famous authors or quality publishers, but you'll have more than enough material just going through the motions, coming, so to say, from the other side of the spectrum, achieving much of the same. Go to drivethru and wade through the heaps of material on there for sale.

That's not saying there isn't any good material, that's saying there is not much culture about it other than that of selling stuff. And if you are sitting there right now, huffing and puffing about that "culture" comment, I'd like to ask you why you can find all kinds of books in book stores but no rpg books among them (and I worked in a book store for years, so I'd know).

Really, people don't realize the mass of different and weird books that will find their way into shelves of book stores. Or local libraries, for that matter. At least in Germany that's to a huge degree because books are considered a part of our culture and need to be protected so that all kinds of niche titles get a good chance and an audience.

There is a reason for rpg books not being part of this, and it's not about "not being mainstream enough". It's about rpgs being a product most and for all. Articles of consumption, not a new kind of medium on par with books or movies.

Consider this: imagine a rpg module written by a famous fantasy or science fiction author.

Why not use that? [source]
I know many of them actually play, but again, to get real authors (or artists in general) to put work into something like this is really, really rare (Lamentations of the Flame Princess is the only label I'm aware of that actually put some real effort into the idea ...). Here's another thought, say an author you like actually did write a module or offer his writing for it, would you actually care much about the form?

As it is, I'd say lots of stuff gets written for those previewing modules in public or those taking a quick look at it, deciding if it's worth their time on a whim. There's nothing strange about that and there is the collector aspect of the hobbyist. RPG books can be art in that regard and worth collecting.

But it's more like having an expensive picture or vase or whatever and not so much about the content, isn't it? I mean, I love expensive books and totally get the appeal of something like the Quran written on silk sheets or the Lord of the Rings trilogy signed and illustrated by the author, in hard cover, with his hand written notes and all bells and whistles you'd imagine ... I totally get it. But when reading them, I have a totally different set of expectations on books.

That's just it, when we talk about content and tone, we enter a totally different realm of expectations. And in a way, we have two different phases here. The first is triggering the imagination of a potential reader to an extent that allows him to carry that into his game as Phase 2 and unfold it in his own narrative with his group.

It's not even that much about usability, it's about tone. I think a good tone for this kind of thing is a conversational one. A dialogue, if you will, between writer and reader. It's nothing new, of course, but the reason for this being nothing new, is, that it works. Why not give the reader of a module the reading experience? And I'm not talking technical-manual-reading, but opening realms of imagination instead. I always hated reading old TSR modules for exactly that reason: they denied me the reading experience. I, as a DM, wanted to experience the adventure before DMing it.


So much about tone

Yeah, great idea, let's start another series :P But as I wrote in the beginning, I'm pretty stressed out right now and this is all I got in me for today. I have at least on more post about how modules aren't books and how rpg systems figure into that and one about the idea of play-testing while writing (which all might end up being in one post, I think).

This is not complete or by any means the only way to write a module, but I hope it gave you some ideas about what decisions I had to make when writing Monkey Business (which will be out soon-ish ... I'm working on it!). I know it's a bit controversial to claim RPGs as media in there own right, especially if seen from a marketing perspective and I hope I could give you guys some ideas why I think it's at least a topic worth considering.

Comments and thoughts about this are, as always, very welcome.

And enjoy your weekend, guys ... [source]

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Rules Cyclopedia Oddities Part 6: Diversity

Sorry for the silence, folks, I've been brutally busy only to catch a cold, start a new job after that and now I'm even more busy than I was before *sigh* Anyway, on with it. Thought I'd start with something short and easy, while I'm at it: a new part in my longest running series, the Rules Cyclopedia Oddities! Herein I collect observations about the little details in the great D&D Rules Cyclopedia and ponder on them a bit. Today I poke the bear and talk about the diversity presented in that book that saw the light of day some time in 1991, frickin' quarter of a century ago (yeah, I feel old now. too). This is NOT a political post, just observations ...

Diversity, what is it good for?

Diversity has been an issue among publishers for round about 2 years now and although I really don't think in those kinds of terms (I try to see people for their individual merits and flaws, not necessarily for the flags they carry) the notion that it is something that needs to happen in role playing games, today more than ever, managed to sneak into my (everyone's?) subconscious and I tend to notice attempts towards or against it more often than before.

It's neither a good nor a bad thing, it's just an additional thing. I mean, I think it's okay to build a certain awareness for how different we all can be by showing those differences and making the labels a thing (empowering stereotypes that way, but anyway), it's just that I learned to value human beings in general and go from there ... Just different angles of the same thing, I suppose.

Role playing games have always been about playing what you want (within agreed rules) with whoever wants to play, so as far as I'm concerned, diversity was always a given ... the kind of diversity where you try to find a way to play a 3 meter half-bear/half-human (Beartaur?) with laser-eyes, razor-sharp wings, a light-saber, a rail-gun and a never-ending cigar (which is a thing, I'm sure).

Never thought I'd get a second chance to post
this picture. Heh :) [source]
But munchkin fantasies aside, you can play what you want, that's the big pull of role playing games: it only has the restrictions the group of people that plays can agree upon. The sky is the limit and all that.

With publications, especially with rule books, it's a bit more difficult. Ideally a book should reach each and every possible reader, regardless of age, cultural background, gender, education or whatever. The funny thing about the human brain is, we as readers already meet halfway with every written text, as we learn to associate with the contents we read when we learn reading to begin with. Thus I had no problem reading and experiencing books with children or women or even sociopaths or elves or robots or what-have-you as main protagonists. That's just how we are wired. Immersion and all that jazz.

What a rule book has to do, on the other hand, was a matter of debate for some time now. It's something I followed loosely, but when I took a look into the Rules Cyclopedia just the other day, I started noticing a couple of (I think) interesting, well, oddities about it.

Diversity in the D&D RC

Going by the English version, the whole thing is in a very conversational tone and the author (Aaron Allston) speaks directly to the reader*. I think that's the ideal approach, actually. No matter what examples you bring, it's always to illustrate something to the reader, not assuming it is the reader.

Additionally, Allston always uses "he or she", not just one version over the other (like 3e did, for instance) and the word "male" and "female" are mentioned about the same time as often ("female" is used one more time, I think in the Monster section) ... So as far as gender is concerned, this is an even match.

As far as the rest is concerned, it gets a bit tricky to argue with just the text, so let's check the illustrations next. Actually, that's the thing I noticed that made me write this post right now: the illustrations are blissfully all over the place. Most (all?) of the book is illustrated by Terry Dykstra** and we have a broad range of ethnicities and cultures, with many female characters as a bonus.

Not the Gandalf we know ... [ill. by T Dykstra, D&D RC p. 20]
You might run to your book now and check if that's actually true (and you should, questioning is good), only to find that I am somewhat right, but most illustrations in the book still depict mostly white males. I would then agree with that observation but point out that (A) illustrations are sparse in the RC to begin with and (B) they made a conscious decision to show all kinds of diversity where it counts: the character illustrations.

This is crucial. With the 9 classes the book sports, we get 4 females (not the wizard among them, btw, but Thief, Cleric, Elf and Mystic), two black guys and one Asian (also the Mystic, for obvious reasons?). From all the illustrations in the book, those are the ones getting the most traffic on the table. Deeper into it (mostly stuff DMs look at the first couple of times and keep to the text after that) you'll find it a little bit more uniform, but still pretty varied. I think it's very well worth mentioning that the overall expression must be here that there is something for everyone, really. AND we are talking 1991 here.

All of that sums up to an atmosphere of cultural diversity and adventure, with some hints towards fantasy and danger. No gore and no hints of sexuality or sexual orientation, but that's totally fine.

Well, they all look like criminals adventurers to me.
[ill. by T. Dykstra, D&D RC p. 67]
One final observations: it's well known that the RC has no "gods", but "immortals" instead. I think most of that is to make the ascension from mortal to god in the game a little bit more palpable while offering a broad spectrum of possibilities for all kinds of worlds a DM could come up with. This general approach brings general rules that apply to all gods/immortals. One of them (and that's really just a "nice to know", because it had been part of many online discussions) is that an immortal is completely free to choose his appearance, gender, race, age ... everything you can come up with, really. Just like that. 1991. See page 221. No need to make a thing out of it.

Oh, and one fun fact: the Japanese translation of the RC chose (famously so) a very different route for it's presentation and made the book look like a manga comic. Now, is that more diversity (as in more diversity as far as how many languages the game exists in) or less diversity (as in choosing to cater just to the Japanese audience with a new layout and presentation). Couldn't say what else they changed (but would be interested to hear more about that).

Verdict

The Rules Cyclopedia is, first and foremost, a collection of rules (and still the only complete set of D&D rules in one book, at that). It's the kind of book that should appeal to everyone interested in the subject it presents. I think it did that very well in 1991 and I was surprised to find out that it still holds true today. There is no politics in it or any kind of pretentious attitude. As a matter of fact, Allston keeps himself (and everything else, really) out of the book and instead makes it solely about D&D and what the game can do for you, the reader. I think that's a wise choice.

The guy in the full plate is Asian ... [ill. by T. Dykstra, D&D RC p. 126]
The RC really is the book we should find alongside all the other classic games like chess or monopoly, warts and all (also in a pretty box with pretty dice and pretty character sheets ... a boy can dream).

One final caveat: I'm not a scientist and I didn't analyze the whole text of the book in detail or from a sociological or linguistic perspective. If you did that and came to a different conclusion than me, I'd be happy to check out your results. But my impression is that they really tried to make this a book for everyone, everywhere.

If you liked this post, you might want to check out the other oddities in this series. Comments are, as always, very welcome. Especially if they praise the Rules Cyclopedia :)


* German translation is, of course, the same, but chose to use the more formal German version of "you" ("Sie" instead of "Du"), which, I think, was a mistake. But that's just an aside.

** Sorry for linking to that very empty Wikipedia entry, but there are close to none informations about that person online (he or she? couldn't say). If anybody reading this has more information about the artist or a better link, please share it in the comments. A mystery, no less :)

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Skill Ranks for the D&D Rules Cyclopedia (from LSotN)

Wow, time is flying when you are having fun ... I'm very busy right now behind the scenes, most of it is because I want to get Monkey Business out there, some of it is because I want to get the beta document for Lost Songs of the Nibelungs updated so we can start play testing it again (see my last post for more on that). While I was doing the latter, I finally got one of the missing pieces for the game written down: a skill rank system. Since Lost Songs has some solid roots in the D&D Rules Cyclopedia (and similar systems), I thought I'd share it with you guys.

Skills (then and now)

I just like the picture and
it is about skills, so ... [source]
The D&D RC has optional skill rules and they are quite easy: you basically get 4 skill points with character creation (more if your INT score is high) and for them you buy skills. To use a skill, you make an ability check. Most (all?) skills come with additional gimmicks (little bonuses here and there). Skills start with no bonus, but if you use a second skill point for a skill, you get a +1 a third gives you a +2 and so on.

The next time a character will get a skill point (really, just 1 point each time) is when reaching level 5, after that you'll get another point at level 9 and every 4 levels from then on ... So skills are rare and far between. It's really just a nice little thing that adds flavor to the game.

With our games the house rule was that a skill point always buys you a +1 to a skill (because ability checks already do what skill checks are supposed to do otherwise and that's just lame ... plus, it's easier to explain).

Lost Songs is not much different: a skill point buys you a +1 on a skill and that's a permanent bonus you add to an ability check when using the skill. Characters will have a few more skills, but not much. Advancement is also faster, but not much. Additionally you can raise a skill one point if a skill check comes up with a natural 20.

So having a skill of +10 or more would be very rare in both games. 

Well, one thing that didn't make it into Lost Songs, was that with the RC every skill is unique and has one of those little gimmicks I talked about. It's okay, but most people will forget it most of the time and in my experience it's not used often enough at the table to get it internalized by the players (or me, I'm just as guilty in that regard). So I didn't bother with it for Lost Songs. But without it, skills are just reduced to a bonus and that's boring too.

I wasn't happy with it and it bothered me some time how I could solve this problem and give skills that little extra back without all the bloat. Here's what I came up with (and I think it would work just as well for the Rules Cyclopedia or similar systems):
Skills & Contests 
Skills are not Reserves but Permanent Bonuses. It's a trade-off, really. When characters are young, they have lots of raw potential and while they lose some of that potential over time, they will specialize in some areas and get stronger through experience in others. This chapter will give a short outline how skills work. How they are learned and advanced will be in the Codex Historia
Other than doing what skills usually do (giving an advantage in something a character does), skills also come with Ranks. The higher a characters Permanent Bonus is on a skill, the higher is his Rank. There are 3 Ranks in LSotN and each of them gives a character a new advantage when using that skill. 
Rank I – Novice (+1 to +5) = Every result above 10 on d20 can't be a total failure. 
Rank II – Master (+6 to +10) = 1. Benefit (chose one of four possible benefits for the skill: Earn your Keep, Produce & Maintain, Fight with Skill or Teach Others). 
Rank III – Grand Master (+11 and more) = 2. Benefit AND your tribe benefits from your skill between adventuring seasons (heal more permanent damage, see Codex Historia for details). [that healing bit won't apply in D&D, of course]
Skills can have two out of four Benefits that anchor a characters abilities in the narrative of the game even if a player isn't using them actively. When evoked (that is, the player actively narrates how the character is applying himself), a character can get a regular income, equipment, Combat Statics or he can teach others without the need of a Test to see if it works (as a Test would usually resolve this): 
Earn your Keep: Character is able to apply his Skill in a way that would earn him his keep everywhere he is a guest. Alternatively he could earn some coins (amount and currency as appropriate). Evocation is to describe what the character does in his off-time to earn it. 
Produce & Maintain: The character is able to apply his Skill in a way that will either produce, refill or maintain a resource the group has available (armor, weapons, rations, healing herbs and so on) on a regular basis. Evocation is to describe what the character does in his off-time to achieve that. 
Fight with Skill: The character is able to apply his Skill in combat and gains a Combat Static for it (see blow). Characters can have one Master and one Grand Master Skill as Combat Static. Evocation is to describe how the character is applying the skill in Combat. [as a D&D variant I'd let the player roll 1d6 per static as a pool in a fight that can be spent on attack or damage rolls until the pool's used up ...
Teach Others: Character is able to apply his Skill in a way that will teach others the skill. As long as the teaching character is close (shouting range), pupils get a +1 to the skill (as long as the skill value is 1 point lower than that of the teacher). Successful Tests under stress determine if the pupils internalize the Skill and get to keep the +1 as a Permanent Bonus (see Codex Historia for details on learning). Evocation is to describe how the character helps others to use his Skill effectively. 
Example: Wilgar the Bald advances to +6 in his Riding Skill and decides that he wants to be able to Teach Others. The group benefits from this, because all get a +1 to their Riding Skill as long as he's around to advice them and the player remembers actually describing that his character teaches the others. Over time it could even turn into Permanent Bonuses for the others, as successful tests under stress could make that happen. But their Teaching and/or Permanent Bonus can't get as high as the teacher's Skill that way, so somebody with a Riding Skill of +5 couldn't learn anything new from Wilgar and wouldn't receive the +1 for Wilgar being around.
-->
And that's that. Players decide what the ranks mean and have to talk about it to activate it. Ideally it takes some of the dice rolling from the table and enriches the narrative. It'll go into testing in a couple of weeks, but I'm confident it will work as it's supposed to.

Comments and thoughts about this are, as always, very welcome. Next up should be another post about rereading classic Vampire: the Masquerade ...

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Lost Songs of the Nibelungs 2017 (reflection and design post)

It's been a while, but I was itching to talk about Lost Songs of the Nibelungs again. Play-testing has been on hiatus the last few months, because I needed (still need) to figure a few things out before I want to go on with playing. We are bound to play again end of next month and I need to get into that mood again. Mid-level campaign! So you can expect a bit more noise about LSotN in the near future. For now, I'll start the new year by talking a bit about the state of the game in general and some new developments. I'm seeing a finishing line here, guys ...


The harsh realities of the Dark Ages

Lost Songs is gritty. Not because characters die fast, but because they get to feel every bit of trauma on their way to death. If they are allowed to die. Most of the time they will live to tell the stories about the scars they got. There is reason behind that design choice. At least I keep telling myself that. You see, the idea is to give the players an as detailed as possible idea how their character is feeling at any given moment in the game. Not only if he or she's hurt physically, but in any way possible.

That's the game at it's core. Insanity, stress, even disfavor of the gods and over-stimulation ... it all has a place on the character sheet. LSotN is a game about the hardship we are willing to take upon us to reach our goals and how life will wear us down and reward us for the experience at the same time. It sensitizes the players for that and leads (if you are into that kind of thing) to a deeper experience.

I imagine a LSotN character to look like this. [source]
Not everyone likes it that way, I had to learn. Although I think it can be loads of fun to play for that kind of experience, there are those who don't see it that way. And that's totally fine by me. If nothing else, it helped me see the design goals for Lost Songs so much clearer and I decided to stay that course instead of compromising in this regard. Reality back in 550 AD was harsh. That's just what it is and a game playing in this time should reflect that (imo).

Rewards for challenging the gods

That being said, one of the early mistakes I made was to give that gritty aspect of the game too much room compared to the rewards players would get for challenging the world. I thought experience and level advancements would do that for me. The thing is, if you make the trauma felt, you should allow the same for the bliss of success. The original reason for enduring hardship, right? The high of triumph.

And it's way harder to facilitate with rules than trauma. Actually, that might be a cultural thing. We learn to relate to seeing pain. One way or another. If we see our character hurt, we are bound to do something about it. Bliss is so much more personal and thus harder to relate to. We don't want to know that our characters might be horny (but we like to project that one, don't we?) or in love.

Actually, the positive emotional state of characters is something very much neglected in most role playing games. We relate to the pain and we project all the positive. It's part of the charm, really. What I have in mind, though, is a bit more like having an analogue Tamagotchi, a pet. Players taking care of their character will make it happy and that will make it perform better.

That's why it's important for players to read their characters, it's the only way to know that they need to do something or it starves to death or gets anxious or bored or cursed ... So one of the (at the moment still a bit vague) concepts is to allow "grooming" actions like praying or having a crush on someone or a good meal. Stuff like that.

Sounds strange? Maybe, but think about it as mimicking real life. We all have our reserves and get them drained by our daily routines. Doing something positive, like playing the games we play or having a laugh with friends, that's what we need to recharge those batteries. And I'm not saying here we need that for our characters. No, but I found that having mechanics like that in a game produces little side stories that make the characters and the world and the story feel more authentic.

You'll have the players ask you, if their characters recharge some of that damage by visiting that cute girl they encountered yesterday. You know, that cute one working in that library. And yes. Yes it should. Encouraging stuff like that is having the characters visiting a bath house or an exclusive tavern ... It's all just minor details in the grand scheme of the game, a couple of words in the huge epic that makes the campaign. But it has an impact.

So it's something I will take a closer look at in the near future. I have some soft rules at the moment and they need a bit exploration, but the gist of it is that I will try and encourage this kind of behavior. One dimension of this is the idea of seasonal game I talked about over a year ago (well, I was aware of some of the concepts and problem very early on, never lost sight of them, too). The idea is that of the tribe as the home and family of the characters. It's what they perceive as home.

Heroes coming home ... [source]
I started planning on rules for healing some permanent damage between adventure seasons long ago. The idea was that by marrying, getting celebrated and what-not, character will regain not all, but some of the hard damage they gathered over time.

Is it enough? I don't think so. We've played for seven months and didn't get to a point where the characters had been ready to go back home (or would have been able to go there, for that matter). And we've already established that it needs a more instant gratification. So one of the most important (and successful) additions to the rules had been that with every natural 20 a player roll, he gets one point better in what he was doing that justified the roll. Permanently. Just like that. The character learned something and the player gets reason to celebrate it.

There will be more, I think. But that'll be another post.

Crashing hard and crashing too hard ...

Here's another dimension to the same thing: finding the middle ground. It was kind of hard to communicate that characters don't really get damaged but rather get there reserves drained. It's merely an instrument for players to see what is happening.

I had players who stated their character is feeling this or that or doing this or that because they thought it had been fun to invent the character having that emotion right now. It was in direct conflict with that system of Lost Songs that actually tells you how your character feels.

In other words, there had been no awareness at all what that feature really means for the players. A direct handle what is happening, a play-book, if you will ("Oh yeah, Harkon is still a little down because that bard had made fun of him ..."), but most of all a detailed measure for how far you can push it before get hurt big time.

That way you don't have the 4-hour-day syndrome you get in many (old) D&D games. Although the characters have basically the same reach as D&D characters would, the fact that it is all a bit more fractured really means that they can do more with what they have and heal it faster, too (well, to some degree, as described above).

At least that's the theory. Turns out it is another aspect of the game I need to work a bit on. One of the main criticisms from the players had been related to consequences of that detailed system. Characters would literally freeze to death or get sick and what was perceived as little things would doom or at least seriously harm characters.

That one time the characters had been forced to ride through a storm, with one character being seriously wounded. Bound on the horse, exhausted, wounded, wet and cold he had some massive disadvantages for his saving throw and he didn't make it. The others only noticed when they had reached save shelter from the storm. I liked the dramatic impact of it all and the player had been content with it, but the rest of the group thought it had been a bit hard that he died "because it rained".

I think that's unfair, to a degree. But again, I think it's more a matter of communication than anything else. The only thing I will change at the moment to address this issue somewhat, is by avoiding the downward spiral that comes from having to roll with a disadvantage to fail and get an even bigger disadvantage, which will kill a character very fast. Finding a middle ground is the thing.

Not the middle ground ... [source]
One rule I already proposed for that is to not force a roll if the outcome couldn't be anything else but lethal. So if your disadvantage is as big as your advantage, you don't get a save but fail directly (the idea here is that your ability score gets reduced for the amount you failed your save, so it's a good thing not to roll and avoid that damage). One more rule here would be for characters to regain buffer/reserve by the amount they made a save ... but we need to test if that isn't getting too fiddly.

In that spirit: Skill Levels and Ranks

Skill levels are just permanent advantages to an ability score when a character is doing a special thing. If you have a +1 to a skill, no one is taking it away from you. You can raise a level either in the game by rolling a natural 20 (as described above), by training it in your off time, by (a bit faster) taking a teacher and the time for lessons or by taking one of several level advancements.

The original rule had been that this bonus just meant that: a bonus to the roll. But I came to think that with certain levels of skill, certain levels of failure might be an option, too. What I'm saying, is, that if you are skilled in something, you still might be able to make it work partially. Just like with everything else in Lost Songs, results shouldn't be seen as failed or not. Nuance is a design goal.

So after giving this some consideration, I came to the conclusion that a characters skill level is also the buffer he has in which a fail is not a total fail, but a partial success (I always liked systems allowing something like that). This should work very well with open rolls where characters can invest Endurance (depleting a reserve) to reach the difficulty of a roll, as they get to decide if they push themselves further or take a "weak" success instead.

Streamlining like there's no tomorrow

More rules concluding from the above, while we are at it: every time a reserve gets depleted, it forces a saving throw with the amount below the reserve as difficulty. The result determines what happens next. So if that puts a character into the buffer, he just gets a bit weaker. If he's hurt, he gets a bigger disadvantage and needs to save again as soon as he's hurt again, this time with dire consequences (say you got 5 hp left and you lose 8 hp from an attack, means you have a -3 on the saving throw).

Also, if you are already hurt in one area and reach another hurt reserve, you save to keep conscious. One of my goals is having a Monkey Island moment, where a character wins a fight by insulting the enemy until he loses all courage (attacking Nerve or Wits instead of Grit or Muscle). It's something games should make possible, in my opinion.

Classic :) [source]
There are more little rule changes like that, but those are the main ones, I think. More when I get there.

Still no resolution ...

At its heart it's still a D&D engine and I think the final iteration of the rules themselves will be rather short in the end. And compatible. The DM tools might be a different story and there are still some concepts that need to get written (magic the biggest of them all ... damn it). But I'm confident that I will get this done this year, maybe even written.

So what's next? I still work on that Random Culture Generator and I need to start structuring the game with adventuring seasons in mind, so there's that. Magic needs to see some progress (I have an idea, but it's still too vague) and I need to do some revising of the Random Territory Generator (gets expanded by some of the stuff I did for Monkey Business) and the Narrative Generator (needs to be a bit more succinct and some minor changes, I think). And new character sheets ... Almost forgot about those.

So Lost Songs is anything but dead. This is the third year of development and I feel that's about the time a game like that should take at least to get done. I also aim to start a little online campaign in the next few months and I hope you guys won't lose interest on the way there :)


Thursday, January 12, 2017

Revisiting a Classic 2 - Vampire: The Masquerade (First German Edition, 1993)

Vampire: tM has been HUGE in the 90s and when the German translation of it hit the shelves (the second English had been the first German ...), I was no different than many, many others. We played it for a while and then stopped. Now, 20 years later, I take another look at those books to find out ... well, to find out what I'll find out. Spoiler: it's more different than we played it back then and way more "old school" than most of the old school today. This is Part 2.

New to this series? Here's Part 1!

Second things second ...

Did Vampire fail as a game because it succeeded as a business model? Is this even the proper line of inquiry? I don't know. What I know is that I lost interest in the White Wolf splat book orgy way before I lost interest in the game. I mean, it had been kind of insane, right? V:tM 2e (English version) saw 57 publications between 1992 and 1998. And that's just classic Vampire! There'd been several other lines, Werwolf: The Apocalypse being the strongest among them (I think).

Then they revised it in '98, published and re-published it all until they actually discontinued the whole thing in 2004 ... to start the franchise completely anew the same year and revive the "classic World of Darkness" (cWoD, not oWoD as I wrote in Part 1) again in 2011. Sheesh, that's a lot of canon. No 2 (c)WoD group ended up with the same game, for one reason or another.

Add discrepancies between the different rule sets and the lack of compatibility that came with it and you have a beautiful mix for all kinds of edition wars, splat book wars, variant wars ... So boring. You invest hundreds and thousands of credits into a game, just to start from the beginning every 6-something years, you make it your own every time and then you fight for it because you want to be more right about your decisions than others. Sounds very much like the D&D publication history, right? Still don't see the appeal.

Once a year in Leipzig ... the WGT! [source]
Anyway, the World of Darkness was a phenomenon and made lots of people earn a decent buck. So many, in fact, that the game is still running strong today. At least where I live (Leipzig, home of the famous WGT - Wave Gotik Treffen) and on several strong communities all over the internet. Add PoD for almost the whole product catalog and high availability (most local game stores will have some of it or can order more quite fast, amazon has a decent selection, lots of cheap used books and so on ...).

Well, they couldn't have known in the beginning. The 2nd English edition was published just one year after the first edition and the German translations had been even more behind, which left the game quite, let's say, innocent and untouched from all the bloat that was about to follow. Back then we didn't draw as much inspiration from the World of Darkness as we'd get from movies like Interview with a Vampire and The Lost Boys or comics like Preacher ...

Actually, I think it's safe to say that they hit a nerve with their game. Urban Fantasy was already in the gaming subconscious in the 90s and is still running strong today. White Wolf managed, if nothing else, to constantly add to that some way or another. They still do. As a matter of fact, I just saw a huge part of the SyFy series The Magicians and it's a picture book Mage: The Ascension campaign (without being associated with WoD).

That's why it worked for me back then and still kind of does today. But back to the book ...

BOOK 1 - The Riddle

Chapter 1: Introduction

The introduction chapter is remarkable for a couple of reasons. Of course you get the basic "what is role playing"-part and there are some words on the position of the storyteller and the players. All of it is written as if the reader is completely new to the hobby, building references to the nature of the game and about telling stories in general through common denominators like playing cops and robbers or board games. That's one way to do it and, as such, completely unremarkable.

Where it gets interesting is as soon as they finished talking about characters and describe what a "Brut" is (English equivalent seems to be the "coterie" or pack the characters form). It actually becomes part of the "hierarchy" implicit in the games structure that is: storyteller - players - characters - group.

That is something you see rarely (and I think something White Wolf than dismissed at least for the revision) and I think it's a good thing. Role playing is not only a bout playing a character, it's about playing a character that needs to function in a group. It's the first time they make that point in the book and pretty early established, at that. We will encounter this again later.

Another great piece from the book
by Tim Bradstreet [source
Another thing the introduction does, is explaining some core terminology of the game. Interestingly enough, this is solely focused on becoming a Vampire and what that means, which then, in conjunction with a few sentences about the winning or losing in Vampire, ends the whole affair with the spirit of the game: what's it like to be a Vampire.

I think this is nicely done, leading the reader from having no idea to knowing the gist of it without already overloading it with choices or details. The only thing I felt a bit out of place here were the parts about Vampire LARP, but I guess it's fair to mention it here, as it gets a little bit more detail later in the book.

Prepared like that, we can dive into the World of Darkness as a setting in the next chapter ...

Chapter 2: Scenery

The World of Darkness is a Gothik Punk setting and we get to read about that, true to the introduction, through the eyes of a Vampire. This is the first impression we get. A transition from our world to that much darker and scarier counterpart of that world, where Vampires actually exist. Streets full of blood, corrupt politics, decline of western culture, overpopulation, all that experienced in an endless night and trapped in the cities because creatures more dangerous than vampires wait outside the city limits. Horrors facing horrors.

It's a nice blend, ending with the idea that Vampires try to keep as much humanity as possible to keep sane in a cruel world, before we dive into the World of Darkness proper and learn about the social hierarchy of the Vampire society. This is still keeping on the surface, but we get an idea how old Vampires could really be, like biblical old. And it introduces the concept of a "prince", something almost every city will have in one form or another.

That's what Gothik Punk is nowadays: a fashion statement ... ah, well,
can't make that shit up [source]
Again, I admire the structure here. After introducing a couple of new terms, we go back to Vampire politics and intrigue, which then leads to the necessity of rules for a Vampire society and introduces the Traditions, the rules enforced on most Vampires and what happens to those who break them. A good example how a setting informs a style of play, hierarchy and plot before the rules.

Next we learn about different Vampire sects, Camarilla, Sabbat, Inconnu and all those different political groups and their ideas. This slowly gets more and more detailed, going slowly from the outside to the core, conveying general knowledge to allow a reader seeing how it all connects.

The next part is, consequently, about the different clans and their origins. A nice twist here that this introduction really is about the origins of the clans instead being about what you could be playing. So the learn here that the Brujah had actually been guardians of knowledge before they fell from grace and ended up in the desolate state they are when we enter the game.

The way this is set up, a reader will have to wonder what of it is true and what kind of scheme is behind all of it. Why are the Brujah held in this state of desolation? Is it all a big scam from one of the old ones? Part of the Djihad? I found it very inspiring. You get just enough pieces of the whole to wonder what it all might mean. That's good writing.

This is a meaty chapter and before it really goes into detail about the generations and origins of Vampires, we also get to read about lesser clans and other oppositions, like werewolves and witch hunters. It all sums up to a quite delicious Urban Fantasy mix and it makes quite clear that the Vampire characters players will get to play are monsters, for sure, but very low in the food chain.

The end of this chapter is a lexicon not of game terms but of slang terms, used by Vampires and divided between general terms, old terms and slang. I love that. The idea is that you can get a sense of a Vampire age by the language he uses, which is solid advice to begin with, but getting that close a look into the culture at this point is just gold. I really enjoyed reading this although it's basically a list of entries with short explanations.

Chapter 3: Storytelling

Notice the pattern here? After getting a head full of ideas and concepts, the next thing you'll read (when reading it in order) will be about how to make a story for the game out of it. Still no rules, just a world, a couple of ideas and some basic structure to get them told. That's what I'm talking about. The book is taking the reader/storyteller by the hand, teaching basic knowledge about the craft before anything else and it's about telling good stories.

Role playing games being a medium with it's own set of peculiarities (compared to books or movies or what have you), this whole chapter is a lot about the dynamics between storyteller, players and the rules and the things you have to consider when telling a story in a role playing environment. It's all solid advice.

Actually, I had been a bit afraid encountering the tendency I've seen in other storyteller games, where the story always trumps the rules (which always means that storytellers should ignore die results that harm the story, like a character dying, for instance). But no, they actually say that you have to find your own way handling it, but ignoring bad die results because they might hurt the story, will hurt the game instead in the long run. So what a good storyteller does, is finding a way to make the result work despite the bad consequences.

This doesn't mean the rules have to be obeyed by the letter, but the storyteller will always have the last word (which is good), he just should consider the implications if he openly ignores the rules to change some outcome (which is true).

This chapter also talks about different player motivations to participate in a role playing game, about storytelling techniques, in general and advanced, gets a bit more specific about LARPing Vampire and how important props and the right surroundings are for the game's atmosphere (never play during daylight hours, use lots of candles ...) and has a nice list of do's and don't's.

At the end we get an excerpt from the Book of Nod about the biblical origin of the Vampires in the cWoD.

And that's the first three chapters (or 75 pages) of the book. I'll say it again, this is good writing and a great introduction. It leaves the mind spinning with possibilities and ideas while establishing all the pieces necessary for the game. At this point someone aiming to be the storyteller of a Vampire campaign, might already have a general concept or idea what he'd or she'd like to do and how. I think that's impressive.
The kind of story* I had in mind in the 90s ... [source]
It really shines with it's general advice. I mentioned at the beginning of Part 1 that this game really informed how I DMed all my later games and this is why. You don't get that by reading the Rules Cyclopedia and I don't know about any game before Vampire that explained role playing the way Vampire did (if you know one, please share in the comments!). If you read a bit on my blog, you'll know it all had a lasting impression on me.

Part 3 will be about BOOK 2 -The Becoming

After reading about a quarter of the book, we finally get a glimpse of the rules. Just the basics, really. And then we get to make characters and plan proper campaigns in the cWoD. All this will be discussed in Part 3, of course. In the near future (I might mix it up a little and write about something else in the meantime ... let's see how people take it).

I have to say, I enjoy good old Vampire a great deal more than I should. Already have an idea for a campaign, too. Well, maybe I'll make a final post with a campaign hook and all the ideas I have collected so far. We'll see.

When writing this and doing the research, I found out that they changed a lot with the revision of the rules in '98 and I started to wonder at what point people entered the game and which editions they read or what their impressions had been. Is there a huge difference to what I described here? I'd be happy to hear some thoughts on that, if someone is willing to share!


* I mean the Preacher comic, of course, which I was a huge fan of back then. A Vampire, a preacher and an assassin go into a bar ... never gets old. Was the source for some great stories, too. I just got to re-read it and I have to say, it's still fun (just not very pc ...). Btw, ignore the tv show. It has nothing to do with the comic. Nothing.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Revisiting a Classic 1 - Vampire: The Masquerade (First German Edition, 1993)

Vampire: tM was one of those formative DMing experiences for me, something that would define my campaigns for years to come and it's up there with my all-time favorites, the D&D Rules Cyclopedia, HackMaster 4e and Cyberpunk 2020. Now, 20 years later, I want to find out how much of it still holds and what changed. It's been one off those things I wanted to do for a long time now and I gotta say, different (old?) eyes see different things.

First things first:

An unconditional recommendation! [source]
I never was part of the huge V:tM-hype of the 90s. I was lucky enough to get the books early (I think around 1995) and the whole goth-thing wasn't much of a thing then. It left me to form my own idea what the Vampire Universe looked like. It had been decidedly less Anne Rice, black lace and mascara and way more Punk with a good dose of Rammstein, Industrial, Stephen King and lots of German after-war decay. I also took a good deal of inspiration from the dirty 90s aesthetic of b-movie horror films like The Prophecy* and anime movies like Ninja Scroll (if that makes any sense). And we had the Weltschmerz going, but, you know, puberty and shit, so no surprises there.

Good times. But it was different enough to make me avoid the whole Vampire fanboy crowd at conventions and what not. We played a bit, I collected a good bit more of it (Dark Ages, Werwolf Wild West, Hunters, lots of Exalted ...) and at some point (D&D 3e is to blame for that, too ...) we just stopped playing in the old World of Darkness (oWoD) and moved on.

What we played back then was a mix of Urban Fantasy I still enjoy and revisit regularly, in gaming and in other media. If I were to name four sources that would inspire me today to DM a bit oWoD, it'd be ASP (lyrical goth-industrial?), Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch's latest and, imo, one of his best), What we do in the Shadows (great Vampire-Mockumentary!) and Leipzig (more punk, old buildings and decay than in the west, odd and very inspiring).

Anyway, let's get to the book proper.

Cover ...
Präludium: The Damned

It's the part I skip normally and I'm not sure I actually ever read the prose introducing readers to the mood the game is supposed to generate. Or at least, every time I start reading something like that, I end up skipping pages because it bores (or annoys!) the hell out of me. Most game designers aren't authors. And why should they? Well, I read it this time and ...

... it was okay? It starts with telling us that the Vampire is nothing more but an old symbol, a mirror of ourselves. Okay, fitting enough. Then we got a page with some nice artwork (see next picture below) and another page with a letter in a very bad cursive typeset. It starts the personal description of the World of Darkness as seen from an old Vampire with the initials V. T., from the next page on in a decent font from then on.

As I said before, I never gave it the time of the day. Reading it 20 years later, I see nuances I didn't see before (I was pretty ignorant and opinionated back then, being 17 and all that ...). I appreciate now what they did there. We have an unreliable narrator, going through all the aspects in the game from a, well, storyteller perspective. The text is sprinkled with little idioms in Latin, French, Spanish and English, given the impression that it's written by an educated person from the 19th century.

Great artwork!
It's heavy on the information about the world, which is good, and the reader doesn't get a lot of information about the writer other than how old he is in the context of the game world. You might think it's a Vampire from an Anne Rice novel. I thought exactly that. It's only in the end that we get a few subtle hints who is writing and you actually only get it if you know your Vampires, as it goes never beyond using initials: the writer has to be Vlad Tepes, Dracula himself. Nice touch there.

Book 1: The Riddle

This one starts with another prose text, this time about someone becoming a Vampire. Again, nothing special and a bit over the top for my tastes.

Book 1 comprises the first 3 chapters of V:tM and focuses on what a role playing game is, how the oWoD is structured  and what a GM (narrator) does. No hard rules until chapter 4. I think that's a good concept. Assuming that a reader most of the time will be a (potential) narrator and not a player, it's good to get into the philosophy behind the game, the game terms and the position of the narrator in establishing the campaign, before talking about the game mechanics or character creation and player stuff.

I'll keep the details for another post and leave it at that for now (read on with Part 2). I like this old book. It's well done and not at all overwhelming. Well written, too. And I can already say that it's going to get better than that. The mind-set behind the whole rules is, if I may say so, very much what we regard as "old school" nowadays and lots of advice I found so far here by rereading this, is advice you will encounter in one form or another all over the rpg blog-o-verse cyclically and on a regular basis.

More when I get there. One last thing. I mostly write about D&D, DIY and the OSR, so I guess most readers come from those corners. So I'd be interested what experiences you guys had with Vampire and what your impressions are. Feel free to comment, I'd be happy to hear about it.

You know what I mean ... [source]

* Got to see that one again ... It has Christopher Walken as an Archangel, so there's that. But Viggo Mortensen as the devil!? Young me wouldn't know ...

Monday, January 2, 2017

How to prepare and run a better adventure! (or: The Secret of Escapism, Part 3B)

First post this year! Let's make it a big one, shall we? It is the last part of a series about escapism I started way back last year (December). I tried hard to make this a three-parter, but I ended up with way more (as usual, I'm afraid). A lot has happened since that first post and I'll try to catch you (and myself) a bit up to the argument I'm making here before I start to expand on it once more, bringing this whole hot mess to an end (of sorts, as it never stops ...). So what should you expect? Going by the title, advice to plan and run adventures by using assumptions about escapism.

Basics (a collection of established points)

What follows is a summary of the ideas discussed in the previous posts. I'm sure it'll offer new perspectives on some of it, while neglecting other aspects (because I forgot). I'll naturally just name things here, the proper arguments and research are in the original posts, so feel free to read up on them. That being said, I'd like to add that all you need to know is right here in this post. On with it!

Part 1 illustrated how we needed escapism for our well-being and personal development in general and connected it through stories and day-dreaming to our great hobby. The gist of it is that the weird adventures we experience in our games have a purpose beyond the fun time they provide. Knowing that is the first step in providing a better adventure for your players, because it reveals general patterns of how our brains are wired to stories in a way that, if done right, allows us to make stories in fact satisfying on a more subconscious level.

The subconscious ... [source]
Part 2 dealt more with the "why this works"-aspect of the whole idea and why it is about stories. There's an unlimited supply of stories surrounding us, with more already forgotten and still more ahead of us. And yet, there are patterns connecting all of them and you will find (without searching too hard) formulas for writing successful tv shows, theses about the structures of novels or genres and lots of fantastic research about what happens with us when we consume good stories and why.

This being about inducing the possibility of escapism in our adventures, it's important to look what happens with us that makes us enjoy a good story (regardless of the media used for the consumption, actually, could be a movie, a book, or whatever your brain can come up with). Turns out, the one thing they all have in common, is what we experience as The Flow. It's a state of mind where we let go and immerse ourselves in the story. We all know that one. What most don't know is that there is some serious research done how that Flow is achieved. Here is an example for watching a movie (from part 2):
  1. We need a sense of competence in executing the activity (seeing a movie, you know movies);
  2. there's a requirement of concentration (sure, you pay attention so the story can do its thing);
  3. clarity of goals of the activity (genre and duration of the movie are known or assumed or guessed soon enough);
  4. immediate feedback from the activity (you pay attention and it pays of ... scares, laughs, emotions ... you know the drill);
  5. sense of deep, focused involvement in the activity (you know, if a movie gets to you, you'll be along for the trip);
  6. sense of control in completing the activity (tricky one, but most people know not to drink too much before and during, smoke a cigarette before the movie and put their mobile in sleep mode ... you know what to do when you're going to see a movie);
  7. loss of self-consciousness during the activity (if things go as they should, you'll lose yourself for a while);
  8. sense of time is truncated during the activity (and time flies ... we all now that one).
The important bit is that if it's true for watching a movie, the same goes for playing a role playing game. We can lose ourselves in the activity, that's the major appeal of the whole endeavor. And when preparing or running an adventure, we really should consider some of the consequences resulting from those insights. Which leads to ...

... Part 3A and the First Layer of Escapism, which is discussing what good story are made of. It's basically a collection of points we should consider when creating adventures for role playing games (beforehand or at the table, it doesn't matter):
1. Stories have patterns and we need to trigger those patterns so that other participants get an idea what is happening or, in the case of role playing games, what might happen and/or what is expected. 
2. Use known story patterns, communicate them ... then break them (but always within expectations).
3. Give them something to talk about and give them room to talk about it. 
4. Give closure. 
5. Give rhythm. 
6. Always say "Yes, but ...".
Again, there are several ways to handle stories and we are merely scratching the surface here, but by keeping the above and its implications in mind when creating or running our adventures, we most certainly end up with a solid frame for the story we want to tell. The main point here is that it's not the amount of great ideas that make an adventure work at the table, but how you present those ideas.

As a matter of fact, I'm pretty sure that poor execution killed more than one great adventure before it even started, or made it a very dull and boring exercise to get through. Because lack of proper execution will deny players (and DM!) the flow. They'll question what happens and their competence handling it (or any other of the points above, really) and then they are just sitting it out.

Seeing it from this perspective means accepting that one of the most crucial aspects of creating a successful adventure starts way before you even think about what actually is going to happen. In effect, stories are nothing else but properly arranged set-pieces of interesting events. They are not secondary, but complimentary to the patterns we use. I feel that's an important distinction.

Escapism ... [source]

And yet, there is one last thing to write about: what stories should we actually tell?

The Second Layer of Escapism

That first layer has been about how to use the patterns of entertainment and already covers a lot of ground. In a way it functions very well on it's own, depending on the participants competence in what he likes. In other words, someone really into horror movies might enjoy a "bad" horror movie because he adds what it's lacking through experience or (just as important) he finds enjoyment in knowing the patterns and seeing the mistakes (yeah, being analytic about those things can have its own kind of flow).

The second layer is far more elusive than that, but just as important. It's what's lacking when you do all the above and the players just don't care enough to invest in a longer adventure, not to mention a campaign. In a way it touches on the spiritual aspects of escapism and why we are able to immerse ourselves in music or, for that matter, meditation. It's about how we resonate to abstract paintings ... In a way it's all rooted in our sense for beauty and peace.

You might think now I went in all kinds of wrong directions with this one, but part of this series about escapism is actually exploring this very aspect. It's how we see ourselves as heroes (exceptional beings) in our daydreams or the books we read but refer to ourselves as "adventurers" (those taking a chance) in role playing games. It's why successful stories always, always have the main protagonists in exceptional and novel situations. It's about what makes a nice evening or how we emotionally connect to the things surrounding us. Beauty and peace.

Think about playing D&D in a crowded subway and you know what I mean. There are conditions for this to work, like the friendly banter about all kinds of topics before or during a game, a warm (but not too warm!) room, indirect lighting, snacks, drinks ... that's all part of the experience. Or rather, helping making it happen.

How systems will affect the mood ...

The mood you create is important, I think we can agree on that easily. Where it gets tricky is when we go for our adventures. Ever wondered why buying stuff in or the bureaucratic aspects of rpgs never turned out to be that popular? It's what we perceive as chores in general. A character could do days of research in a library, reading thousands of books, making notes, going all in and no player would care or see it as chores. Why? It's "just" a roll of the dice (or whatever you use) and you get what you want or not.

So there's a system side to this and solutions exist (random item cards, adventure packages, that Dungeon World concept where you have 5 items in your backpack and call them as you need them ... the list goes on). For DMs when running an adventure it's important to remember that chores will kill the mood. Always. Don't give them huge lists of things unless they want them (and if they want them, don't let them use them during the game ...).

There's a difference, though, between getting what a character needs to survive and giving a character some kind of bonus (like choosing new abilities for a level advancement or because of a successful quest ...). It's a bit related to Herzberg's Two-Factor Theory, which basically says that employees on the one side expect certain aspects as given in their work environment and a lack of those "hygienic" factors will demotivate them, while there are on the other hand aspects they'd perceive as bonus in their work environment and getting them will be motivational.
Looks a bit like that ... [source]

Apply this to the moaning you'll get when players need to go through the equipment lists to buy their necessities and the joy they show when they can go through the same amount of tables to advance a character. Same difference.

So yes, system choice or choice of rules in general will have an impact on your adventure creation and it will impact the game. But it's still not talking about adventure design proper.

How to set the right mood for a story ...

Chores are still the core argument here, but now applied to a story. Remember that we like to be seen as adventurers in a social context and why that is, remember that we like to immerse ourselves in stories where the characters are experiencing something new and exceptional. Make it so.

Again, this is not so much about the patterns that make stories entertaining (as described in part 3A), but about our reasons to get emotionally invested and stay it, too. It's the buy-in and you need to evoke that as often as possible. See, most adventures will be played over the course of several sessions. Every time people have to arrange time and place, every time they'll bring different moods and impressions of their day to the table. It's a DM's duty to find some sort of balance, to get all participants on the same level.

Some of that is discussed above, by setting the mood with the surroundings, for instance, but there's another dimension, something you can't buy in modules: the art to set the right mood within a story in the beginning of session. Using stuff like cliffhangers between sessions is, again, discussed in part 3A ("giving closure" and "yes, but" would be the points here). But getting the whole table immersed, activating every player, that's not only about triggering some patterns, it's about making it emotional.

In most cases a DM will remind the players of the emotional state of their characters and the last scenes of the previous session to kickstart a new session. For that you need to set emotional anchors, so to speak, throughout an adventure. It's not so much what happens to a character, but how lasting a memory you can inject in a player. Strong emotions are always a good starting point, be it humor, horror, uncertainty or really anything you can connect to what's happening in the story will help you getting the players back into the mood.

The techniques named above and discussed in the previous posts will help you make this happen, of course, but what you'll also need to do when setting up and running an adventure, is a couple of ideas how you'll get an emotional reaction out of the players through the story. I think it's an important distinction, actually. A character might be afraid of his life in no uncertain terms and the whole table is laughing about it ... that'll be something worth triggering. A player doing something stupid and the whole table is laughing about it ... not so much.

All you need is a couple of impressions you think fitting for the part of the story the characters are in right now, a table of noises, something disturbing they hear, see or encounter. You'll see on their reactions what works and what not. If it works, go with it, enhance it if you can.

This should do for a good moment or two ... [source]

So whatever story you aim to tell, key to making it an immersive experience is anchoring it somehow emotionally in the players. You don't want the king ordering (or even forcing!) you to do a quest for him, you'd want him to need your help. Or: it's not about the money, but because that whole village of nice people had been so distraught because of what had happened. The list goes on, variation is possible (see above), but keep it adventurous and exceptional. 

It's not the premise, it's how you sell it.

And always remember: Don't panic!
In a way it's important for a DM to realize that he's merely providing a platform for the players to deploy themselves. So if a story is to resonate with them, it needs to provide the room for projection like that. Be specific to pose a problem, be vague to let them fill the emptiness. In other words, by deciding what you emphasize and what not, you also decide where the players get to fill the gaps. Easiest way to see how this works, is leaving the characters for the players to develop (instead of forcing "story" on them, for instance). You may give them options to go certain directions, but it's for them to decide what happens (otherwise you'll end up with them feeling like doing chores again).

There's lots more along those lines, but I'll leave it at that for now. Know your group, offer dialogue and see how they react to what you came up with. Go where group and story take you, enhance the experience where you see fit and do everything you can to allow them access to the Flow of the game.

A word on commercial adventures

How to exactly write a module or adventure is a matter of debate. That's not a big surprise, the hobby being as young as it is. There was no need for books like that before the invention of D&D and the need (urge?) to commercialize is really more of a hindrance to actual invention than anything else. So the jury is still out on this one. 

What we can assume is that writing an adventure is opening something like a didactic dialogue to potential readers. You want DMs to read it, making as much of it as possible stick in the process (pretty much following the argument above). Usability is also an important aspect of such a work, but that actually starts with what the text is able to deliver before anything else.

What a DM needs, in my opinion, is as many impressions as he can get. Evocative texts, good imagery, anything that makes a DM think "Yeah, I have an idea what I could do with that!". Other than that, I'm at a loss. Most people will take from an adventure what they like unless it's really popular and they want to go for the shared experience ...

There's a couple of publishers out there able to produce content like that (Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Hydra Corporation and some of the the stuff by Venger Satanis are those I'm aware of, please add more like it in the comments if you have them).

As good a point as any ...

I think I need to find an end here. This has gotten too long as it is. As always. Anyway, it's all there, to one degree or another. To prepare and run an adventure is a very private and individual exercise. Different groups, different games, different house rules, different characters (paper or not), different locales, it's all over the place. But there are general mechanisms underpinning the whole affair and however they manifest individually, you can always assume that those simple insights have value to some degree. Just go from there and see where it takes you.

Well, I'm still not sure I said all the important bits or anything that is not obvious. That whole spiritual aspect of escapism is worth some more writing, I think. It's not so much about how to manipulate or maneuver the players into some strange ideas or concepts, but rather something we do anyway. It comes with great potential and risks, if we want to or not. If you read the above, you should have an idea why all this works us on a level we might not be aware of.  

It's save to say that it is still incomplete and consists of my opinions and conclusions where I don't quote others. I'll admit that it is more a process than a guideline and that works for me. I'm sure there are other ways and if you do it any different way. So if you are willing to share, I'd be happy to read about it in the comments.

What? He's just disoriented :D [source]