Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Threat, Tension, Risk and Damage (Part One)

First of some general thinking about these issues-- followed eventually by a consideration of how to apply this to our house rules.

One of the real questions about role-play gaming I wrestle with is how much emphasis falls on the first part of that term and how much on the second. I've certainly moved further towards being a narrative, story-based gamer in recent years-- and away from the simulationist side of things. At the same time, and perhaps in some way an opposite motion, has been a move away from a determinist approach to storytelling-- i.e. I have a story which runs on rails to an incident presentation and improvisation approach. I say an opposite approach because I usually think of a “game” as a balanced and equal set of risks and powers, which isn't true in a rpg. But there's an underlying fairness and freedom to a less scripted approach-- which means I'm spinning off into abstractions.

Let's stick with a concrete consideration: wounding, risk, death and failure.

There's a simulationist theory about gaming which suggests that obstacles and adversaries should be detailed and balanced to the party involved. From there we get concepts like Challenge Ratings and the concept of skill challenges in d20 3/4. But we also get that in more abstract systems such as Mouse Guard (which adapts Burning Wheel) which puts explicit limits on the opposition the GM can put into play. Let me say at the start that I don't subscribe to that theory-- but I understand the impulse that drives that-- both towards fairness and competition between players and GM. But I don't follow that path. At the same time I try not to create undefeatable enemies: in my mind a tough foe must have some weaknesses and it is up to the players to come up with a good story about what those are.

So the question is: in a looser and more narrative based game how do we create tension or risk while not making the players feel unfairly targeted. Related to that, how do we draw that sense of tension/risk across all aspects-- not simply the obvious combat situation. Now I may be wrong, but one of the things I'm constantly worried about as a GM is that the players will feel that they can't fail in such a game or that there aren't consequences. As I've suggested before players don't mind failure, as long as they perceive their attempt has been fairly treated and they've had some power and autonomy in their attempt. But players don't enjoy penalties-- unless they come with significant color to the narrative and are limited to a small number. And when I say penalties, I mean numerical penalties that have to be calculated-- I'll come back to another form of penalties in a bit.

Repeated attempts
There are a couple of system mechanics which can add to the sense of non-threat at the table. One mechanic is the “OK, well that ate up some time...I'll try again” effect. So I fail my lockpicking attempt, and I try again. And again and so on. Bad GMs let this go because they want the players through that door-- the game grinds to a halt otherwise. Better GMs apply the pressure of time and circumstance, implying consequences for those failures. Even better GMs recognize if the moment is dramatically significant. Is there a real dramatic possibility if the players don't get through the door? If so, let the failure stand and move on. If not, then don't have the player make the check in the first place. Gumshoe, of course, applies this to investigative skills as a system element. Hero Wars provides a clear statement on “retries” that I think GMs ought to keep in mind: an attempt represents a player putting their all into it. If they fail, they must find another new and novel approach, usually applying another ability or changing up the circumstance.

Related to the repeated attempts problem is the group roll problem. Often when a task comes up multiple players will have appropriate skills. Having one assist the other is OK, but does do two things: a) puts one of the players into a secondary role and b) depending on the result span of the system and how the aid action works, significantly raise the success rates. That latter point may be realistic in some actions, but often feels inevitable and weak in play. You get the same feeling when a GM has the entire group make a perception roll-- with that many rolls, someone is going to make it-- why bother with the rolling. It becomes a competitive test of dice rolling between the players with no real consequence.

The point is that with any test, the results ought to not feel inevitable-- if they are then move to the result and skip the rolling.

There are exceptions:
a) if the inevitability comes from the players having taken steps to raise their chance of success through stunting, planning, or generally doing things. Let the players make the roll as a capper to their attempts. Keep the chance of success in the back of your mind and if they do fail, make it a significant tragedy or make them pay resources (drama points or otherwise) to reduce it.
b) some players really like to roll. Make sure they get the chance to do that in a session.

OK so if we assume that generate a feeling of risk or threat in a game is a good thing, how can we create mechanics which support that but at the same time don't make it a central focus. Threat/Release/Victory needs to be a cycle, and maintaining a constant threat can wear players down. I'll come back somewhat to that idea in another post on victories.

Threat, of course, means that something is threatened. Most obviously this will be the characters themselves-- either through loss of the character or loss of their abilities. But let's face facts: as a GM I rarely kill player characters. I will kill them if they've walked into the situation themselves without prodding or railroading. And after a couple of warnings that's they've moved off the reservation. But character death is pretty drastic-- and it has been a while since I've had players force my hand like that-- or players who've managed to find a good, dramatic place for that to happen. So the risk and loss is often more about secondary things-- loss of resources, loss of allies, loss of friends, loss of status, and so on.

Part Two Soon