So, I'm still alive! I've got a guest post up at Exploring Infinity, but that doesn't mean I can't post back here! So, on I go, with some interesting advice. You see, I've been reading through The Amateur Magician's Handbook (by Henry Hay), and I've noticed that there's some very interesting lessons that can be applied from conjuring to gaming. Watch closely...
- Magic comes from the audience. As Hay explains, "You let the audience perform their own magic, with coaching from you." This is true of GMing and of roleplaying. You can't make anyone think that your character is played well, nor can you make the players enjoy your story. You have to realize that you're trying to engage everyone's interest, but that you can't control how much initial interest they show. On the other hand, also realize that once they've invested interest, it's up to you to make that interest pay off. You'd also be surprised at how well people make sense of the absolute mess that you throw out there. Run with it.
- Always have a reason. Hay also decries magic tricks that include apparatus for no apparent reason--producing a card from a tin box suffers in the magic department, because you had no stated reason to produce the card from the tin box. On the other hand, if you use the tin box so that nobody can interfere with the cards, and then produce the card from your pocket, the effect is far better. In the same way, you should always have an obvious reason for things to be a certain way, whether that be plot elements, character attributes, or (in the case of designers) game subsystems. The best twists happen to character and plot elements that have every reason to be in the story.
- Don't use idle patter. "Patter" is what the magician says to accompany a trick. An example of awful patter is the well-known "notice, my hands are empty, and there is nowhere I can possibly hide a card". This is what I'd call "idle patter"; it does nothing but re-state what should be obvious (and if it isn't obvious, make it so without calling it to attention), and it draws attention to your attempts to covertly keep a card ready to reveal. As any member of an RPG crew, don't be shouting "LOOKATME!" to highlight a paladin's moral code, or a villain's malice. That time's better spent living the character's traits out in mundane things, on a more subdued level.
- Everything builds to something unexpected. Magic ratchets up the tension, setting a process in motion, and then throwing an unexpected twist into things: the magician has someone pick a card, put it back in the deck, and then continues to unsuccessfully attempt to find it...eventually pulling the card out of their pocket. That unexpected moment, the big reveal, is the one point that the entire trick hinges on. You can easily use this on a number of scales (such as the conclusion of a session-long plot arc, or an important character decision), amping things up to one single moment*. Try and spread the enthusiasm to multiple moments, and you lose the effect. Fail to amp the climactic moment enough, and it falls short.
*there's actually something to be said for a reckless, headstrong approach here. As Vincent Baker et al will tell you, trying to meekly build up to a climax isn't generally the best approach within the unpredictable framework of a game. Instead, in the grand tradition of Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, snowball the tension, continuing to take more and more strong, dynamic actions. You'll eventually get to a point where things get awesome, and that's when you can pull the climax and start revving for the next.
That's what I come up with off the top of my head. What about you, readers? What do you have to say about the art of captivating the gaming table?