Thursday, September 2, 2010

Threat, Tension, Risk and Damage (Part Two)

More general thinking about these issues-- to be followed eventually by a considering how to apply this to our house rules.

Part One here.

So an interesting thing happened as I started writing and thinking about this. Robin Laws Hamlet's Hit Points arrived in the mail. As often happens, he manages to hit better, more fully and more clearly on a number of points I've been thinking about. The book examines several classic texts (Hamlet, Dr. No and Casablanca) in terms of the kinds of beats and moments by way of comparison to an rpg session. He'd done some of this discussion on his blog before and some of it in his breakdown of the dramatic arcs in Hero Quest 2e. In this version he considers most beats as either providing Hope or Fear. Through that he demonstrates how the alternation of Hope/Fear can sustain a game. I don't think he exactly puts it this way-- but too much focus on Hope provides little tension or connection and too much focus on Fear freezes and depresses us.

I like the idea of breaking down those beats and I do think his analysis can help us see how things play together. But I'd also say, as he does, that the role-playing game doesn't exactly correspond to the narrative structure of these kinds of dramas. Obviously there's the issue of interactivity-- but I don't think that's such a big concern. Players who buy into the genres see these beats and tend to try to create scenes that work within them. I think more importantly, you get a good number of filler beats-- things are tried, experiments are made and plots appear and are dropped. In a tight narrative-- like a film, novel or even video game-- things which don't play into the narrative get cut in editing. The RPG doesn't have that luxury. The best analogy I can think of is a long-running comic book series which moves through a number of creative teams. There plots and characters get raised, dumped, forgotten and retconned at the drop of a hat. Reading some of the retrospective blogs about the awful X-Comics of the late '80's and '90's makes it seem like a bizarre table of changing players with an editor/GM trying to keep some coherency but failing.

One of the things Laws' analysis points to is the difference between a kind of macro-level story tension and a micro-level scene based tension. At the macro-level story level, that balance of Hope/Fear becomes important over time. Depending on the game, the tone and the section of the arc, the balance between those two sides will vary. If a game goes long on the Fear side of things, they need to have the trust of the players. I'll admit that was most of my problem with Cyberpunk and a couple of other darker games I played in. The lack of Hope beats and the feeling that the GM could and would destroy anything we'd built. That distrust came from either not having played with that GM before or from the GM in the past having destroyed what we'd built. I keep that in the back of my mind-- my reaction to that experience. So I won't do that to players-- but I'll threaten to. That threat serves as a Fear beat, but unfortunately I think some players realize I won't go that far. Again a question of the actual push and shove of the GM and player.

On the other hand, the micro-level is about the tension and risk within an individual scene. Generally, we're talking about combat, but it also applies to other tasks-- like defusing a bomb or stopping a runaway vehicle. And in my games it also applies to social situations. In any particular interaction with an NPC the payers want something, but the NPC wants something as well. That's a secondary goal-- having the players suss out what that is. In any case I want to keep my focus on the micro-level-- as this will come around to the question of damage systems in games. Damage being one of the more coherent and concrete methods for measuring risk.

Related to the central point for risk and loss is the question of attachment. In order for there to be a sense or threat or risk, a player has to have an attachment to what is at risk. That makes certain kinds of players bad for more story-oriented games where the players aren't wagering something off of their character sheet. We had a sociopath in the group for a long time. While his problems went past the table into a lack of general empathy for other human beings, it made for really bad situations at the table. He assigned no value to anything beyond himself and so only damage to his character mattered. That was a pathological player, but I've seen other players, sometimes good players, assume stances with the same effect. “They're just NPCs” is an approach which comes out of playing in certain kinds of games. But some people come to that detachment from a paranoid play style. They suspect everyone and everything of being a device on the part of the GM to screw them and so avoid attachments. Or they play an “angry” character who avoids attachment out of disdain or rage. They may state a character goal of overcoming that, but in practical play they will not. These kinds of defensive approaches echo what Graham Walmsley's Play Unsafe and Johnstone's Impro call a “Closed” response. Now both of these character stances: the angry character, the paranoid character can be done well. However when they aren't they usually work as a wedge to protect the player.

I'm not sure how a GM overcomes that. For myself, I like taking damage in combat. It makes me feel involved in the events. One of my favorite combats had be knocked out twice through the course of it. But I've seen a lot of mixed messages about damage and combat in my time running. For example, I had a player who consistently critiqued combat in the games as not providing a sense of risk. He didn't feel threatened. Yet at the same time when that player actually took damage or suffered a loss, he would become sulky, hyper-competitive or angry. That made for a difficult set of choices for me as a GM. Some players read any kind of failure as punishment. And players, quite rightly, don't like punishment. But when players read anything negative as punishing, it becomes a trap for the GM.

I'm not sure what the solution is for that-- I'll come back to that at some point. Honestly it shows one of the virtues of a simulationist approach. One has an agreed upon set of guidelines and restrictions. Actions, decisions, and results can be tracked an accounted for. There's an objectivity to the system which provides players with a sense of fairness. I don't think we should under-estimate that as a virtue. The story-driven, narrativist approach I've come to enjoy has some downfalls-- and one of those is that it can be subjective and certainly will be seen as subjective by simulationist players. I think that's what Burning Wheel tries to get around through its low-detail, low-trust mechanics. I think the trick is to figure out ways as a GM to continue to build that trust and demonstrate that we're on the player's side in some ways-- or at least on the side of the story they want to tell-- providing of course, that they've taken the time to indicate what they want. That's another problem worth dealing with in a different post.

Next time I finally get to damage.


  1. Players who want a perfectly crafted story arc, realistically lethal combat, and not to take damage need to give themselves a slap in the face. Barring that, you have to give them a LOT of prestidigitation. Pretend you're ruthless, but then give them a measured win.

    I think you do a great job of that in your games, and fortunately the group I've gamed with at your house is easy going.

    It reminds me of an RPG that Art, Matt and I played at GenCon a few years back, With Great Power. All of the story mechanics are laid out graphically. There is a story arc chart. If you lose challenges early on, you get to lay down cards on the arc that give you more power in later sections of the arc. I thought it was brilliant, but it literally lays on the table the kind of stuff you and Robin Laws are talking about. Matt and Art didn't like that.

  2. I'm really enjoying this series of posts. I like the change from the classic outright "failure" to a narrative loss of control, loss of equipment, or loss of opportunity as you have done in your games. I find it more satisfying than having a PC crushed by a boulder or disintegrated by a ray gun because of a single die roll -- see also Jonathan Tweet's "Kirk Rule" for heroic characters. A failed check that is just a failure seems more like blocking than anything else.

  3. Gene-- was the reason for their dislike based on a perceived gimmicky nature to the system? Making failure a commodity? Shifting game balance or some other reasons?

    Kaiju-- yes, I do think failure in an abstract setting can be read in multiple ways-- and a decent abstract system ought to additionally allow players some power over that portion of the narrative. Of course the question then is how one does that and maintain tension.

    I'm always worried that games with shared narrative control are going to end up like a particular scene out of Invader Zim.

  4. I think Art & Matt disliked how abstract and obvious the story arc is in With Great Power. It's as if, during a play, Robin Laws stood on the stage and held up FEAR or HOPE signs after each action. I think Art and Matt preferred this be done invisibly by the GM.