Suspense in RPGs
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  1. #1

    Suspense in RPGs

    Here's an old blog post from Vincent Baker's website:

    A Small Thing About Suspense
    I have no criticism cred to back this up. Just amatuer observations. So kick my butt if you gotta.

    Suspense doesn't come from uncertain outcomes.

    I have no doubt, not one shread of measly doubt, that Babe the pig is going to wow the sheepdog trial audience. Neither do you. But we're on the edge of our seats! What's up with that?

    Suspense comes from putting off the inevitable.

    What's up with that is, we know that Babe is going to win, but we don't know what it will cost.

    Everybody with me still? If you're not, give it a try: watch a movie. Notice how the movie builds suspense: by putting complications between the protagonist and what we all know is coming. The protagonist has to buy victory, it's as straightforward as that. That's why the payoff at the end of the suspense is satisfying, after all, too: we're like ah, finally.

    What about RPGs?

    Yes, it can be suspenseful to not know whether your character will succeed or fail. I'm not going to dispute that. But what I absolutely do dispute is that that's the only or best way to get suspense in your gaming. In fact, and check this out, when GMs fudge die rolls in order to preserve or create suspense, it shows that suspense and uncertain outcomes are, in those circumstances, incompatible.

    So here's a better way to get suspense in gaming: put off the inevitable.

    Acknowledge up front that the PCs are going to win, and never sweat it. Then use the dice to escalate, escalate, escalate. We all know the PCs are going to win. What will it cost them?

    Thoughts? What do we have to do in a RPG to force the players, in the play of their PCs, to "buy victory"?
    XP Manbearcat, Aldarc gave XP for this post

  2. #2
    Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post
    Thoughts? What do we have to do in a RPG to force the players, in the play of their PCs, to "buy victory"?
    I agree with a lot of what he saying here, and he offers some valuable insight, but then I also think of movies like Cool Runnings. Will they succeed in the end? You would think yes by standard storytelling conventions - and suspense builds in that direction - but it also turns out that they fail in the end due to their bobsled having a mechanical failure. Their "success" comes only from earning the respect of those evil Swiss, their local Jamaican community, and a world skeptical about a Jamaican bobsled team.

    In terms of RPG, I would say that Fate does what Vincent describes fairly well. There are several mechanics that provide players with options to "buy victory." You failed that roll? The player can choose to either invoke an Aspect with a fate point to either reroll the results or add a +2 to the result (and possibly more). Or the player could choose to accept the roll result, but then choose to "succeed with a cost." Part of the tension of gameplay in Fate is pushing players to make these sort of choices that highlight what moments are important for their characters and achieving their goals.

  3. #3
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    Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post
    Thoughts? What do we have to do in a RPG to force the players, in the play of their PCs, to "buy victory"?
    Obviously, the PCs buy victory with the currency of limited resources: in D&D, spell slots; in FATE, FATE points; in Storyteller pools/tracks (BP, Willpower, Humanity)...

  4. #4
    Quote Originally Posted by Tony Vargas View Post
    Obviously, the PCs buy victory with the currency of limited resources: in D&D, spell slots; in FATE, FATE points; in Storyteller pools/tracks (BP, Willpower, Humanity)...
    But what have you got in mind? Eg what sorts of structures for framing challenges will lead to choices to buy victory?

    For example, how do you establish stakes or buy-in?

  5. #5
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    Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post
    But what have you got in mind?
    I suppose you could just put price tags on victory conditions, take it or leave it. Or you could put certain conditions that /could/ lead to victory on sale, for a limited time, or offer two victories for the price of one. Or you could auction off victory, like ebay, or take sealed bids...

    ...puns, pemerton, puns were what I had in mind.
    Sorry.



    edit: oh, and if you can't afford to pay for victory, you could always charge - especially in 4e, where charging could be very effective.
    Last edited by Tony Vargas; Tuesday, 19th June, 2018 at 11:59 PM.

  6. #6
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    OK, I feel bad about that, I'm going to /try/ to be serious, now...

    Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post
    Eg what sorts of structures for framing challenges will lead to choices to buy victory?
    Incremental ones, I suppose. One giant drama-suck in many games is a skill system that goes no further than single-check pass/fail. Similarly, for a combat challenge, 'Nova's or death-spirals can blow or drain your encounter's suspense...

    ...sorry, I slipped there for a moment...

    For example, how do you establish stakes or buy-in?
    I know those have some game-theory jargon meaning, and I'm just going to proceed, in defiance of all my past experience with game-theory jargon, as if they were the intuitive meanings implied by the words (you can skip linking the 10000-word Ron Edwards Dissertation on why 'stakes' are only tangentially alluding to something you stand to lose, and actually have to do with whether Zebras are red with black stripes, or white with red stripes).
    ::deep breath:: ...serious, Tony, serious...

    So, if you don't have buy-in, if the players don't care about the goal, then they're not going to 'pay' much to achieve it, so your suspense is DoA.

    And, to build suspense, the stakes should presumably be raised as you step through your incremental challenge structure.

    Given that, you need to establish the Goal or Victory condition, first, and assure the players are committed to it. Best way may well be to let them define the Goal. You can tweak the conditions that will achieve it from what they expect, perhaps, but letting them set it, and be able to achieve it, would be good. No Gotchyas, no Deus Ex Machinas.

    They should come up with "first we need to..." if they don't, you should provide it. If they come up with several things, great. As they get to work, making checks or expending resources or whatever, each failure reveals/causes a complication that costs resources up-front, or needs to be dealt with in ways that may expend resources (standard resources for the game, or situational ones like time or survival-days or favors or credibility or whatever).

    The players should be able to see the goal, and see that they're getting closer to it, even if the PC cannot 'in the fiction,' too. ( One GM I know uses "cut scenes" effectively - things that are happening or have happened long ago elsewhere in the setting that inform what we're doing, even though out characters know nothing about it, at the time it's revealed to the players. That can build suspense, too, FWIW.)

  7. #7
    Suppose we have established a goal. (Maybe the players choose this. Maybe the GM reads them the blurb on the back of the module cover and the players agree to run with that.)

    Probably the GM, or the module, provides a starting point for doing something that might contribute to that goal. Suppose that the players (via their PCs) engage that starting point and fail. How do we now respond to that - ie establish an opportunity to pay a cost ("escalation!") in order to keep pursuing victory?

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    One way to preserve suspense is for a PC to get killed, occasionally. Sure it happens more in the lower levels, but when
    a higher level character buys it, it preserves the integrity, suspense, and overall rewarding outcome of the game.
    XP Lanefan gave XP for this post

  9. #9
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    I think one way to build suspense is to feed the players more information that they wouldn't know but that show how their enemies are on the move. It's like the way a director keeps viewers on the edge of their seats - we see the main characters doing something, but we also see their antagonists at work - and now we're feeling tension and anticipation because we want the protagonists to prevail, but it's hard to be totally optimistic they will if the enemy is getting into a better position or nearing the completion of their goals - and we can see and feel the race against time...

    I keep thinking of the late scenes from Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious. Cary Grant is with Ingrid Bergman and they have to escape her Nazi husband who has been poisoning her. But they keep drawing out the scene even though we've also seen her husband and his Nazi cronies and we know that if they don't get a move on and get out of the house both of them are in deep trouble. So there's this massive tension and you wonder if they will escape in time or she will die of the poison. If we didn't know the Nazis were about, much of the suspense in the scene would be gone. Same with things in Avengers: Infinity War. Much of the suspense in the movie comes not just from worrying about what's going to happen to our heroes, but also from us seeing how far advanced Thanos is in achieving his goal.

    So if you want to give your players a bit more suspense, reveal how close their enemies are to their goals, reveal a few bits of info about the opposition and how nearby or dangerous they are, be a bit more free with info about the antagonists and let the players stew over it. If they don't know they have enemies or they're too nebulous and ill-defined, they might not even know that they should be worried.

  10. #10
    Well this is certainly very "Dogs in the Vineyard-ish!"

    I obviously agree with what Vincent is saying here. Victory/power/honor/survival, but at what price and all the way down to outright Pyrrhic Victories will answer questions about humanity or "who is this PC" or "what have they become?" Ultimately, the answer to those questions are much more profound and ultimately fulfilling than questions like "did I build this guy well enough and deploy his abilities well enough so that the fiction spits out 'best swordsman who ever lived' by the time we're done playing?" Those questions are fun and interesting, but they don't carry much emotional weight. The fires of real suspense burn in proportion to their means of ignition...and that ignition is emotional heft.

    This is why games like Dogs, Burning Wheel, Sorcerer, My Life With Master, Apocalypse World, and Blades in the Dark are so meaty and visceral. The stakes are extremely high and the GMing ethos, PC build mechanics, resolution mechanics, reward cycles, and advancement schemes ensure that gain comes with cost...and oh will there be lots of cost...and with that cost change. The entire process is extremely suspenseful because no one has to force anything or bend anything to their will. You can merely play_the_game and this is assured to happen. So everyone (GM included) gets to be in on the suspense ride of how this all shakes out; who gets redeemed, who becomes irredeemable, and who ends up so broken that they care about neither.

    Death isn't nearly as interesting.
    XP Aldarc, GrahamWills gave XP for this post

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