Doubtventure galore

A doubtventure (a word of my own coining) is an adventure where characters are made to doubt each other but have to keep together. You may have just noticed how many adventure stories and movie plots are doubtventures, this is not without a reason. Doubt is a good engine: a good plot employing doubt as a tool becomes more engaging and bad plots which use it become harder to dissect. It’s no different when the characters in the story are players, it’s even more interesting!

Wikipedia tells us that doubt, a status between belief and disbelief, involves uncertainty or distrust or lack of sureness of an alleged fact, an action, a motive, or a decision. This (as self-explanatory as it may seem) is very important to us, as we now know which things we can use when designing a doubtventure. Actions, motives, decisions, even facts can and should be used. But how do we do this? What do we need to do to create doubt in a world where players expect the game master to be all-knowing? 

First, let’s take some time to discuss the appropriate behavior of a game master, as this is where many people go wrong. A game master isn’t the enemy of the players. He isn’t there to reward them if they beat his plot, nor is he there to try and kill them. He could do it at any given moment. He is there to be a host for endless possibilities, a vessel for their own ideas as well as an imaginary world which has to accept them. He transitions the tabula rasa characters into in-world form and functions. He should reward what the setting and plot deem rewarding and he should judge only as the setting and plot deem fitting. He isn’t there to execute his own will, he is there to be the will of the world into which the players enter. He should explain whatever they do not understand without hesitance, the world itself should be inviting and the players should feel at home (of course, except if they are in an alien world). Remember always, now-and-future-game masters: the first rule, which I even daresay is the first law, reads “do not plan, be prepared”. With that in mind, let’s go back to doubt.

The game master should at all times understand what he is doing. He is all-knowing in reference to the players, who can only understand tiny portions of his knowledge – if they know it all, they may look behind it and become meta-players, usually called power-players. When envisioning the world that you are going to present, my dear game masters, think of it as a world where someone has to spend his whole day. Is your world capable of supporting life? I don’t mean it in the biological sense either – is your life really alive in the world or is it obviously machinated by someone (you and the players, presumably)? This question is of great importance, as it is this that makes the distinction between good and bad world-builders. The main lesson here would be that our own world is a good leveling tool: this is a dangerous world, it is setup as such and yet, we live in it, day-in day-out. In comparison, for instance, the world of Warhammer (and many other “all-out war” settings) is a bit hyperbolic with all of its perils and makes the players think along the good-bad or (love-)hate lines. Our world is much fuller than that and that feeling of density should be treated with respect. That’s why good game masters know how to lead good Warhammer: they find the human stories inside, the personal stories hidden in the mass hysteria and tell them. You should be afraid of extremes – extreme characters rarely exist and when they do, they usually attract immense attention and this is not good for your players. Doubtventures ask for characters who are normal, everyday even. If you give them power, please take something away from them too, make them dependent on others in some way. Also, try to always have an infiltrator in the company, an NPC that will be above the players, a father figure or a teacher. He or she should be respected by all members.

The game master should then, after creating a world in which he himself feels that people (of different kinds even) can live, think of an event which the game will be focused on. It may be anything at all – the existence of an item or an interesting person, sacred object or secret plot, whatever you see fit. This event should be approachable from different angles or at least give way for different interpretations so that different characters would all see their own purpose in the game. For instance, searching for some mystical artifact that only mages can use without supplying the non-mage characters with a reason to follow is pretty weak. You could make it right by introducing prophecies that tell of the non-mage characters, for example, which only the mages can decipher. Here comes the next important step in doubtventuring: make sure that no interpretation of your event is completely true. Every aspect can have a bit of the truth, but no one takes the whole cake. 

As Wikipedia continues: Doubt brings into question some notion of a perceived “reality”, and may involve delaying or rejecting relevant action out of concerns for mistakes or faults or appropriateness. Perceived reality rests on your cultural and family heritage and your own search for truth. To make stronger use of doubt, characters should start out with strong propositions about how the process that they are investigating works and what it will bring them personally. Up to here, their personal search for truth should be minimal, maximizing their use of prejudices (i. e. Tolkienesque worlds: elves are noble, dwarves hunger for gold, etc.). The good thing about prejudice is that it spreads disbelief, doubt and even angst. Some stories could have been resolved much faster if only all parties were to listen to each other. Your goal is not to let this happen.

It is important to remark that “reality” is a term which has to be understood perfectly to master a game successfully. For your players, “reality” is what they live through and you can tell them what they lived through. You don’t have to tell the truth or the whole truth – you can carefully choose words or hide certain things from them. Their reality is and always should be flawed. To make sure this happens, layer your event. Let’s take an example: someone is doing something for reason A (which only he knows), this looks like a different reason (let’s call it B) to a hidden observing party, which sells this information to another knowledgeable party which recognizes yet another reason (C). Story of this goes on and your characters could trust any of these reasons, the more, the merrier. As the story goes on, the characters change due to the subjectivity of the ones telling the tale, some even disappear. Some of your players may know the real characters but would they really want to tell the others? Exposing truths is losing personal gain over others and this should be important. Again, in no way should they know if they are right – they should only trust that they are the only ones who are right. Details from the B reason might undermine the reasoning behind C, the players might shift but this is quite alright. The game master has to behave as if every opinion on the matter is completely true, no exceptions.

Different schools of thought lead to separation and separation leads to more time for personal rites and hidden actions. Things that happen in this time can be only everyday things (eating, sleeping, reading, etc.) but if anything suspicious happens in that time, these actions will turn into alibis, which the other players will try to ruin. Here lies the essence of doubtventures. Make it a personal goal of each player to prove that someone else in the party is guilty of something. Humans have a strong justice engine and most will jump at the chance to be the ones who bring the culprit to justice. The only problem is that the game master is smarter: none of them are guilty, for example. Your event, the one behind it all, should be above their attempts and should resolve as foreseen. The players, probably already deep into doubting the ones near them, will have to pursue their personal agendas more quickly to get their hands on their goal – no one else can be trusted. They would love to leave the rest of the group behind, but they can’t – your mechanisms tie them together (or at least they should).

As the story slowly resolves, it should become more and more difficult for them to tell who is right, as they find clues which contradict each of their stories and in the same time, they all find them to be true. If done right, the players never even scratched the surface of the mystery they were exploring. This brings them into a dangerous situation: so much time was wasted finding the enemies inside the group that the real enemies might have become too strong to handle. This should be evident. The players won’t feel depressed at their stupidity, they will accept the mystery and loss as a reward. But don’t make them lose: make them fight. And if you can, make them fight well, even if in the end they should all die. The mystery should in the end cloud all of them and make them a team. This will lead them to believe that all the doubts put into the group were wrong, forgetting that they themselves probably had a personal agenda, based on disbelief. This is something that most RPGs tend to do and players are just taught to do so in dire straits. It brings out a feeling of heroism and respect; it is much liked. Here’s where you can use the NPC you planted among them for good (if you hadn’t already): he could have talked to one of them about his or her agenda and he could make it public. The doubt on the other side of the table returns at once, although it might be short lived if the characters really feel like a good union or are bad at their roles. You should openly put characters in hard situations, here especially: put them at gunpoint or blade’s edge of the other players, aggressively make them choose sides. This would be the first time you made them do this, mind you, and they will be a bit lost. If they played their roles nicely, by now they have traces of relations with the other characters, even if only in doubt and they should express them. The process that they are adventuring to find, however, should still not be impeded by them. If it should have taken its toll on their group, so be it.

Doubtventures aren’t gratifying in the usual way. They rarely bring treasures in the forms in which players want them. When ending them, it is always best to end in mystery (as to what was happening all along), but explain the result (what happened once their misunderstanding of the situation took them to the place where it was all happening, but stopped them from stopping it). Make them suffer personally, tell them what they lost and what could have been saved were their choices different. Of course, do this by means of your secret agent(s) in their party. They could prove to be the culprits, but they needn’t. This will make the players think about their choices and make them feel real. When we lose, we learn. When we doubt, we live. Making them understand this without saying it is the treasure you’re giving them. After all, that is why they are playing, even if they don’t know it.

AUTHOR: Miroslav ”Mika” Gavrilov

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