Tension and Situational Design

By | November 16, 2013

Hello once again!

This week I’ll be continuing our discussion of Fail-Next and Situational Story Design by exploring how to build and maintain tension.  To recap, Fail-Next is the method we’re using to build the challenges in Infinite Earths adventures, wherein nothing required for the story is dependent on dice-rolling and failures identify clues on potential avenues down which characters can proceed.  Situational Story Design, meanwhile, refers to a more event-oriented approach to emergent storytelling, wherein the situations that exist do so independently of the player characters and story, therefore, comes from the player characters being introduced to these event ecosystems.

This is a distinctly different method of adventure design than is traditional.  Traditionally, adventures proceed in a standard Introduction to the Problem, 4 to 5 Encounters which help identify the story (or not), and then a Big Bad or some other Structure of Higher Danger near the end of the adventure to overcome and give Players conclusion and catharsis.

In traditional adventure design, enemies must be precariously balanced with appropriate challenge ratings and with explicit tactics because they must feel dangerous to players without feeling overly difficult or overly easy.  This is why so many adventures assume the tentpole classes will be used:  “A Melee Brute, a Healer, a Skill Monkey and Ranged Artillery walk into a dungeon…”

The tentpoles must be assumed because otherwise, the challenges will no longer be balanced; there will be more or less difficulty, and ultimately the game is designed for Players to succeed (but not too easily).  Guides have to perform a tightrope of trickery in order to maintain the illusion of tension; if Players get too clever, they can see through the veil and all hope is lost.

I’ll give you an example from an early play-by-email I did about a decade ago.  We were doing some stuff (I’ll spare you the details), and it turns out there’s one set of bad guys behind all of the troubles our group had been experiencing.  So we’re fighting a group of these bad guys, when we overhear one of them yell, “Don’t kill them!  We need to take them alive!”

I heard that and I thought, okay, it’s time to get crazy.  I lost all tension in the game; I no longer had the fear of death for my character.  The GM had essentially given me a blank check to do the riskiest maneuvers, because my enemies were powerless to stop me.

Yes, this is an example of an inexperienced GM’s mistake; and an example of an unscrupulous, experienced player taking advantage of that mistake.  But it’s also a fine example of the tightrope GMs must walk when attempting to tell traditional stories, because there’s a structure to said story and a plan behind it.  Exposure of said plan is like learning you have a Fated Destiny: you know you have to get to X location and do Y, so until you’re at X doing Y, you’re invincible.  Your plans might be thwarted, but you will forge on.

Truly emergent roleplay, open to all the possibilities, isn’t so structured.  In fact, it’s largely unstructured.  There are events, consequences for events, and reactions to events – but that’s it!  The key is to realize what’s necessary for the story to proceed:  other people doing things for the Players to oppose, and a way for the Players to interact with the opposition.  Nothing else is needed for emergent storytelling.

In other words, a large part of the tension in Situational Story Design comes from the fact that no solution to the issue being presented has been developed by the Guide.  There are things that are, or that will happen, should the Player Characters not interfere.  There are consequences that will arise if the Player Characters should interfere.  But the story is not written beginning-to-end; if it were, that would imply the Player Characters are only interacting with an already-existing story, like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, rather than truly generating that story.

This reduces the game-like aspect of storytelling (wherein there is an implication of a “right” way to approach any given situation) as well as the puzzle-like aspect of storytelling (wherein there is an implication of a single correct solution).  Instead, Situational Design creates adventures which are more like a riddle, requiring cleverness and oblique thinking in addition to problem-solving skills and system mastery.  It allows Players to encounter challenges and overcome them on their terms rather than the game’s terms.

This also makes dangers and threats very real.  It’s much harder to metagame a threat level when any enemy could be your end.

In one recent Demo, for instance, a pair of players faced off against a crocodile.  “No sweat,” they thought, “It’s a crocodile, this is a d20 system, it’s got like 5 hit points, we’ll take it out and move on.”

The crocodile handed them their asses.  It was a result I certainly wasn’t expecting, and they sure as heck weren’t expecting it either.  They won, but only barely.  And were not quite so eager to get into the next fight – the challenge became not “how do I win this fight,” so much as “how do I identify whether this is a fight I should enter?”

This provides a baseline level of tension.  Can this be exploited by Guides who are more adversarial, and see telling a good story as “defeating the Players?”  Well, yes, but so can any game system.  We are, though, including a web of guidelines and structures to help Guides plan the challenges they create to be appropriate to what they are trying to achieve.  That way, 1st level characters aren’t trying to Save The World while 10th level characters are Looting The Dungeon For Beer Money.

With the tension level set at “You might be in over your head!”, tension can be increased even further by adding more to the challenge.

High Stakes always increase tension.  The more there is to lose, the higher the penalty for failure and the greater the need to succeed.  The tension will be much higher if the PCs’ kingdom will fall without them than if a building will burn down.

However, that’s not always the case if the Danger is Personal.  Threatening a character or a character’s friends ratchets up the tension because, in Infinite Earths, players must actually go through the trouble of making friends and maintaining those friendships.  In such cases, a building belonging to a friend can, effectively, be a higher stake than the whole of the kingdom.

Having Too Much Going On is also an excellent way to produce tension.  By having too many variables in play for the Players to comfortably keep a handle on, the Players cannot account for everything.  This will increase their uncertainty about the results of their actions and thereby ratchet up the tension.  This can be handled either by having many variables simultaneously, or by constantly providing new and unexpected revelations that force alterations to plans.

A Ticking Clock, either in the form of an action timer to speed play up or in the form of a countdown toward a plot event, also generates tension.  Timers can be done by following in-world cues such as enemy waves: the first wave is 2 strong, the second wave is 4 strong, the third wave is 8 strong. . .eventually the waves will be too numerous to defeat.  Alternately, more real-world cues can signal tension, such as Players needing to be done before sunset.  When using this method, the Guide can find ways to mention what time it is, or the lengthening shadows, as play continues.

Filling the world with Barricades will help build tension, particularly when a Ticking Clock is involved.  Walls, guards, locked doors and bottomless pits introduce obstacles and delays that run down a clock and prevent catharsis.

And one last method of winding up the party, time-honored (but overused as a result), is Robbing Abilities.  The party of spellcasters who comes upon an enemy decked out in magic-absorbing trinkets, or the land-bound axewielder who must fight a flying enemy are examples of robbing characters of their normal abilities to deal with trouble.  This method is last because it should be used sparingly; there is no point in creating a character who is good at something if that character is only going to face all the challenges he’s not good at.

One key thing to note is that, when the situation is tense, the NPCs must also be tense.  If something bad is about to happen, NPCs should be upset.  They might not even offer help after a certain point, because they are stricken with grief or too busy helping to prepare others for the inevitable oncoming doom.  Too often, Guides can allow the tension of a situation to dissipate because, well, no one else seems to care – so why should the Players?

And you must never forget that the main reason to provide tension is to provide an opportunity to release that tension.  This can be done through a quick introduction-and-release (for instance, an ambush combat), or through a slow buildup and linger (such as a quest to save a friend).  Longer periods of tension will be harder to maintain because the characters and Players will both be actively trying to release the tension (ether by telling jokes, being quick to attack, etc).  Maintaining tension across multiple sessions is the most difficult task of all, because players will be steeped in the real world between sessions, allowing the fantasy to dissolve.

For maintaining tension across sessions, then, there’s nothing finer than a good old-fashioned Cliffhanger.

Building and releasing tension is the essence of good adventure storytelling.  The tension of not knowing what’s on the next page is the tension we are attempting to replicate with Situational Story Design.  When combined with in-the-open dice-rolling, you never know what the next tilt is, when the next kink in your plans will show up.

Much like real life, this is the story of you.  How will you tell it?