Tension, Threats And Progression In RPGs
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  1. #1
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    Tension, Threats And Progression In RPGs

    Back when Dungeons & Dragons was new, the designers and most of the players were wargamers. Typical adventures involved threats to the player character's lives and possessions - their money and magic items. As the hobby has grown, more of the participants are not wargamers, and many campaigns must find other ways to create tension, or abandon tension entirely in favor of linear stories or other means. People refuse to have their painstakingly-crafted characters killed.

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    ". . . a good campaign must have an element of danger and real risk or else it is meaningless - death walks at the shoulder of all adventurers, and that is the true appeal of the game." Gary Gygax

    Add to this players who have learned from video games that games never really threaten you in video games there is always the save game or the respawn, and if your avatar is killed you just come back to life and go pick up your stuff and continue on as though it never happened. These players may not like a game in which their virtual lives can truly be threatened. Unsurprisingly, there's a large segment of video gamers who blame the game if the player fails.

    The question arose recently on a LinkedIn group of what GM's can do to create tension other than threaten the physical well-being of characters.

    Threatening not only the possessions of characters but also their status or well-being in their community may work. While this may be more acceptable to some than having their avatars' lives threatened, it still runs into the very strong loss aversion that is common in the 21st century. (Loss aversion: people's strong tendency to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring equivalent gains.)

    The difference might be that if (say) there's a status track that reflects how much the community trusts the player character, even if the status goes down it's easy to see how it can go back up. It's more generic than, say, destroying the player's favorite magic wand - that wand is never going to come back. The game/campaign also must make whatever statuses are being tracked just as important as magic items and money.

    But this still involves the threat that something will be taken away from a player's character, and therefore from the player.

    The key to the popularity of Eurostyle tabletop games is that players are on a clear progression from less to more - as contrasted with games where players progress from more to less (as in Chess and all its variants, Checkers - and a great many wargames). Players never lose anything, never have anything destroyed or stolen, hence loss aversion is not involved.

    The contrast can become not who keeps or does not keep something, but who progresses faster and who slower, even as everyone is assured of progression. This is the way computer RPGs work, again because your character cannot fail in their tasks, and even death rarely slows them down.

    RPGs already have progression in the increasing capability of the character, whether that comes from leveling up, or more skills and feats, or more magic items and money, or something else such as prestige and ownership of land. But the early RPGs all threatened loss of something. How do we structure an RPG, or for that matter any adventure, so that players' loss aversion is not activated?

    I don't have a lot of ideas here because, to me, games should always involve some sort of conflict (I strongly dislike Eurogames, which are usually parallel competition puzzles, not games). Conflict implies the possibility of loss. Without the possibility of loss or failure, what tension can you put into a game?

    There's a spectrum of what most of us call "games" from a game as a tense challenge at one extreme to a game as an "experience," often a story, at the other extreme. Traditionally, stories required tension, required conflict as a major element, but nowadays stories without that tension have become more popular (also think of "walking simulator" video "games"). Thanks to the visual element that has become more and more important as time passes, video games are better able to provide an experience, although tabletop video games can come close when players have sufficient imagination. (Imagination is a disappearing commodity, but that's a topic for another time.)

    I have always been content with threatening what the players possess, whether that's the physical well-being of their characters or their possessions (especially magic items and money). But I came to RPGs from wargaming, just as Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson did.

    Perhaps readers can suggest how to structure RPGs without loss aversion, yet without turning the "game" into a story told by the GM that the players merely follow.

    ​contributed by Lewis Pulsipher

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    The idea of an RPG adventure without loss aversion immediately brought to mind a rival Adventuring Group trying to get the same treasure. I got the idea from an Eberron module that was inspired by Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indy was competing with Belloc for the Ark. Similar adventures that feature a race to find macguffin artifacts would work as well. Rival adventure groups would be natural targets for conflict so the RPG adventure has to be constructed so that conflict is impossible or unwise.

    There are encounters that could be constructed without loss aversion in an RPG adventure that are the exception to the rule. An encounter featuring a chase (either to escape or capture) would qualify. Or possibly a race in front of spectators like the dinosaur race in Tomb of Annihilation.

    Finally, social interaction offers encounters where persuasion is used in a variety of ways. Consider a ball where the PCs are trying to help an NPC ally win the heart of a young noble who has many other rival suitors.

    These examples make clear that the presence of RIVALS to compete with who are not necessarily ADVERSARIES to defeat is the key.

  3. #3
    Goblin punch had a pretty good rundown of the topic, with various interesting angles on it to steal/creatively appropriate: https://goblinpunch.blogspot.com/2017/10/impact.html

    I especially his concept where maimed / severely wounded characters get a progressively higher inclination to retire from the life of adventure. That, or the mutations..

    https://goblinpunch.blogspot.com/2017/04/death-trauma-and-retirement-im-gettin.html
    Last edited by Cripes; Saturday, 16th December, 2017 at 08:29 PM.

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    There's a lot of prejudice and preconception in this article, especially when it comes to videogames. I will just point out the increasing popularity of Iron Man modes in videogames over the past couple of decades, to the point where it's now become almost obligatory for any single-player game to include one. Many videogamers actively seek out an experience in which loss is a real possibility, and failure will result in having to start the entire experience from scratch.

    To address the question, one possible source of tension can be social standing. If the PCs are lauded as heroes for their past deeds, having them take the blame for villainous actions that they failed to prevent, or even unwittingly aided, can be a painful blow.

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    Many RPGs seem to involve an inherent tension (if not outright contradiction) in how they present themselves - they suggest the game has neither winners nor losers; yet PC death is a clear loss condition!

    Furthermore, there is an awkwardness in a team game which is player primarily socially rather than competitiiely, when one player loses while the rest of the team is still playing the game. Especially if the play time remaining is measure in weeks or perhaps years. Is the player whose PC has died meant to just not turn up to the game anymore?

    Assuming that player keeps turning up, and so runs a new PC, is that PC going to be an ineffective contributer (eg starting at 1t level with a 10th level party)? In which case, why bother? Is the player who loses first stuck on a death spiral, where s/he keeps losing because his/her PC can't keep up?

    If the answer to the above is "quasi-geometric XP tables means the new PC catches up quickly" then the natural question becomes - why not just skip the "catching up" phase, and have the new PC come in at the same level, or - say - one level behind (as per 3E's raise dead spell)? At which point, PC death ceases to be such an extreme loss condition, or maybe isn't even really a loss condition at all, but something more like an instance of resource expenditure.

    In other words, I don't think changes in the way D&D handles PC death are mostly attributable in changes in the personalities of game players. I think they reflect a natural dynamic in the evolution of RPGs in response to the tension inherent in denying the game has a loss condition while building in a loss condition that is barely workable.

    (There are other solutions, obviously: just to give one example, if you limit PC growth to 3rd level, a la Moldvay Basic, then treating PC death as a loss condition which necessitates a new PC actually becomes workable. But D&D has opted not to confine the power curve in that way.)
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    The main source of tension in the game I GM is what can loosely be called "story losses": if this thing you are trying to do doesn't work, then this other thing that you don't want to occur, will occur.

    Eg in my Burning Wheel game, the PC who was trying to redeem his Balrog-possesed brother failed - his brother was killed in front of his eyes, after the PCs got lost in the catacombs, and so another character bent on vengeance against the brother got to his resting place first.

    In my main 4e game, the PCs have tried to ameliorate the ambitions of both the gods and the primordials to ensure there is no outbreak of a Dusk War. If they fail, the world they are trying to preserve will be destroyed.

    Etc.
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    It's very possible to build in tension without death. Superhero games have been doing it successfully for decades, and if properly mimicking comics, characters shouldn't die, at least not permanently. Losing to the villains is a huge blow, and of course there is tension in keeping identities secret, having the media paint you as a villain, romantic entanglements, accidentally creating a new timeline....

    As for other losses, such as items or social standing, is that something that's going out of style at the table? It's not something I've noticed.

    I don't think players not wanting to lose can be blamed on video games. Most video gamers I know, which I admit is not a huge number, play rpgs in a pretty traditional fashion. I agree with pemerton that there has been a shift in how rpgs are played over the years. The wargame roots are fading, because role playing, is frankly a poor fit with the original DnD game. Even at the time, there was a lot of discontent among the more story oriented players. The hobby has also broadened to include a wide variety of styles.

    The "gentle" rpgs coming out of Japan focus on socialization at the table. They have very little tension, as the players are usually trying to improve the lives of npcs, with the "bad guys" usually just misunderstood. This is a different style of game, but has nothing to do with the younger generation just wanting to gain without pain.

    As for there being a lack of imagination in "youngsters" these days, I admit it can feel that way. But assuming that the next generation is lacking has been happening forever, so I think the kids today will be fine. They are generally more open minded and accepting. And I do have hope that they will have the imagination to undo some of the problems we have created.

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    Ah man. After all the warm and fuzzies the last time around, @lewpuls goes full on "git off mah lawn" again.

    I don't have a lot of ideas here because, to me, games should always involve some sort of conflict (I strongly dislike Eurogames, which are usually parallel competition puzzles, not games). Conflict implies the possibility of loss. Without the possibility of loss or failure, what tension can you put into a game?
    Umm, what Eurogames are you talking about? Catan certainly has loss conditions, or rather, a win condition which means you have a clear winner in the game. Pandemic has very, very clear loss conditions and you will likely lose as often as you win.

    Are we seriously going to entertain that the most popular games in decades aren't really games but are "parallel competition puzzles"? Whatever that is.

    How far back do we actually have to go to find the play style that is being talked about in the article? Dragonlance released in the early 80's, but, was being played in the 70's and the very early days of AD&D. Here we have a clearly story driven game where loss isn't about dying.

    And, if we stick with AD&D, a Raise Dead was pretty easy to come by and easily affordable by a group of 4th level or higher. Loss by death wasn't exactly a huge barrier even back in the day.

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    Yeah, I was kind of wondering about those Eurogames too. Thought I was missing something.

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    I think that to really look at this one has to look at goals. What is a player (or more specifically their character's) goals. In early D&D it seems the goal was "Survive and amass more money and magic items". So at that point, taking any of those creates loss. Take the superhero genre - those have very different goals, in general terms things like "Protect the city" or "save the people from the madman". With such goals then the tension is created by threatening those goals. Making it very difficult for the heroes to save the city would create the same kind of tension.

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