What D&D can tell us about Transmedia (Part 3)

Last time I talked about the "storyworld" of a D&D campaign, and how its necessary richness mirrors the requirements for a good transmedia property. Today I start a discussion of audience. The Audience Engagement

A game of D&D is all about the relationship between the DM and the players, just as a story -- especially a transmedia one, in which the audience is either interacting with the story or responding in real time as it unfolds -- is about the relationship between author/creator and audience.

In D&D, the DM designs the framework of the story, but it's the players who actually live the story. More than passive audience, they are the heroes of the narrative. In some sense, they are the story, and as game-runner, it's the DM's job to make sure that works as it should. In a novel, you have to engage your audience with interesting characters and plot. In D&D, as with transmedia, you have to engage your audience through the content of interaction.

Imagine the D&D session as a series of points. Each point is a moment of interest -- perhaps an encounter, a challenge, a moment of rest in the city, or even the stretch of dungeon between encounters. Through play, you flow from one point to the next -- the characters explore the dungeon, run into monsters, solve a puzzle, get rewards, go home.

At each of these points, you have to engage them. That encounter better be interesting. Exploring the dungeon shouldn't just be a series of lefts or rights, it should tell them something about the setting, the inhabitants. The puzzle should be intresting, challenging, but doable, and it should play to their skills.

Playing to their skills is important. Players make choices for their characters, and they want to be able to take advantage of those choices. Sometimes it's fun to challenge them by forcing them to use suboptimal abilities, but it's far more rewarding for them when a choice they made pays off.

In this same way, a transmedia story can be seen as a series of points, each one a fragment of the story: the movie, the corporate website, the exchange on twitter, the telling photograph, the phone app. Every single one of these points needs to engage your audience.

If your audience is exploring the full extent of your story, they want something from each piece -- entertainment at the very least, but preferably a greater understanding of the story or world. Otherwise that piece of the story is a waste of their time. But each of these points is also a potential draw for new audience -- if someone stumbles across the blog, it should be interesting and engaging enough on its own that it hooks that person into the story, gives them something for their time, and ideally draws them further in, to look for and engage with the other points.

Playing to the Audience

Many basic guides to running a D&D game, including advice in the core rulebook Dungeon Master's Guide, discuss different kinds of players, categorizing them and saying that if you know what kind of players you have, you can understand how best to deal with them, how to keep them happy. You may have the Actor, who really delves into their character and the role-playing; the Power Gamer, who loves the game mechanics, and looks for cool new abilities to use and powers to get; the Storyteller, who looks to the grander narrative over individual character motivations; etc.

If you know what kinds of players you have, you can design the game for them, to make them most happy with the result. If they're all different, you find the balance.

In a transmedia story, your audience is much bigger than a typical D&D group, and it's impossible to know what each of them wants from the story. In fact, you can bet you have audience members in each of the player archetypes and more.

There are two tricks to dealing with this. One is to make sure you have something for everyone. Transmedia is all about choice -- the choice to be involved in the community or not, the choice to interact or be a passive viewer, the choice of which media to view to get the story -- and different people will choose different things. Have options for those that just want to passively watch the story unfold as well as those that want to interact with and affect it. This will allow you to broaden your audience.

But then watch how they interface with your property. Listen to what they find most engaging about it. Matt Toner of Zeroes2Heroes talks about this in regards to Are You Awake -- see which of the elements you've created are being responded to most. And then focus on those elements.

If people love the webisodes and the game but very few read the character's blog, then scrap the blog and focus on telling the story through the media that are working. Don't force your audience to go to a medium that they don't find engaging, and don't waste your time and money there. The benefit of a transmedia story is that you can respond to what the audience wants as it plays out in real time -- use that to your advantage, in the same way a DM can read his players and plan a game accordingly. Go where your audience wants to go.

This extends to story as well. At the beginning, create a lot of hooks into the story, over a lot of media, then watch which ones draw people in and focus on those.

Engaging Their Emotions

"As you reach the apex of the tower, you find yourself face to face with The Flame. His eyes burn with madness, and he holds the adamantine schema in his flaming hands."

"That son of a bitch. He's mine."

A DM's wet dream is to create a villain that the players -- not just the characters -- truly hate, or an ally they truly care about -- someone who's very name inspires an emotional response. That's when you know they've swallowed your story -- or at least part of it -- hook, line and sinker.

Just as you want a reader to be invested in a character in a novel, you want your audience to have an emotional attachment to your transmedia story.

This is not easy.

But it starts with having rich, detailed characters. Give them a history, make sure their motivations are strong, give them sympathy -- and then tell your audience about it. Not directly, of course.

In D&D, this could come from the players infiltrating the villain's hideout and finding evidence of their past. Perhaps they run into someone who knows the villain, or knew them before they were Evil/crazy/etc. Perhaps the villain's very hideout is the converted ruins of the orphanage they were raised in.

Perhaps it comes across in their plan -- they don't just Want Power. They want power so they can resurrect their dead lover.

Emotion is also engendered by how they interact with the player characters. If they've escaped before, it could be enough for players to hate them upon meeting them again. Maybe they did something to wrong a character in a particular way -- hurting their allies, perhaps. (If you're a player creating a character backstory, never give yourself family attachments. The DM will certainly use them. (Unless you want that deeper connection to the story from your character, in which case I want you in my gaming group.))

You can't force emotion, though (no matter how much you want to). You have to see what the players are responding to. Setting up a sympathetic character to be killed by the villain so the players really hate the villain only works if they actually cared for the sympathetic character.

In transmedia, you have some tools at your disposal that you don't in D&D. It's easier to gain an understanding of a character (and thus investment in them) when you can look at their Facebook page, post on their wall, exchange emails with them.

But you still have to look at how your audience is reacting. Listen to what they say, watch who they engage with and on what level -- and build on that.

Audience Respect

When you run a D&D game, you're being given a lot of trust by your players. These are five people who are giving you give hours of their time every single week. That's a huge gift -- but it means you have a huge responsibility to use that time well. In five hours, they could watch a movie, play video games, read and have a beer with a friend. Instead they're drinking Mountain Dew with you and following your story.

Make it good.

Like I said before, everything they do, every encounter, even every part of the dungeon, should be interesting, should be engaging. Don't waste their time. Be prepared and keep the game moving and listen to what they want.

The same, of course, holds true in transmedia. You're asking a lot from your audience. Not only are you asking that they spend their precious time on your primary platform, but you're asking that they take the time to explore all the other aspects of your property, to interact with it, to share it with others, to keep coming back over and over.

If it's not worth that time, they won't do it.

They'll find another gaming group to play with each week.

Next time: The long-awaited Audience Interaction. (The whole series: Part 1 - D&D = Transmedia; Part 2 - Storyworld; Part 3 - Engagement; Part 4 - Interaction; Part 5 - Differences; Part 6 - Resources)