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.


". . . 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
 
Lewis Pulsipher

Comments

Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
Maybe the groups I played with were the outliers but early D&D character creation was often as simple as generate 6 numbers using method outlined by the DM, pick a race, class, buy basic armor and such, and a pregenerated Adventurers Pack that had all of the basic gear and start playing.
Certainly that's how "old skool" things worked. I recall playing that way a good bit too.


Newer games usually have easy ways to recover lost stats, levels and equipment.
They do, and are typically less focused on those as being losses. They're more "story" and less "simulation" or "game". Of course, none of those are outright wrong, it's really up to the group and GM to decide what fits.


I have often felt that the 'Adventure Path' format removes a lot of risk of failure from the game as the path assumes the PCs will succeed. Plus encounters are often softer compared to older games.
It varies, but in general a more story-oriented game has issues if there's major character death, at least without some kind of reasonable replacement rule that lets play go on. New encounters aren't necessarily that soft. 3.X was known for TPKs.
 

Hussar

Legend
An interesting thought. I watched the Youtube article linked above. He makes a pretty decent argument. In a video game, if you remove all elements of failure then, it really isn't a game anymore. I can see that. The problem with how that relates to the current discussion though is that the current discussion posits that only death or loss of equipment are valid failures. Sure, in a first person shooter, if you play on God Mode, it's not really much of a game anymore. But, even though D&D 5e is far less punishing than OD&D, it's not God Mode. Because we're talking about RPG's, win/loss has a much broader scope. Sure, you can lose by dying. You can lose by breaking your sword. But, you can also lose by failing to rescue the princess.

I remember years ago playing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with a very good friend of mine. In the scenario, your characters must rescue hostages being held at a school by bad guys. ((It's a long time ago, and I'm fuzzy on the exact details)) Now, when we played through it, we crushed the bad guys, but, all the hostages (or at least most of them) died in the process. Talking about the adventure later, I called it "Massacre at ____ School". My friend, who ran the game, corrected me immediately and said, "That's not the name of that scenario. That's what YOU turned it into." :D

So, yeah, we totally failed even though we killed the bad guys and didn't lose any equipment.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
I think one thing that motivates ideas like those in the OP is this: it's not obvious how "story losses" (or story wins) directly or indirectly affect the player's position. (It's clear that they affect the character's position - eg in the superhero example, all the NPCs now think the character is a villain.) And if those losses actually don't affect the player's position - eg the GM will manipulate other aspects of the fiction (whether overtly or behind-the-scenes) to make sure everything turns out OK - then it's not entirely clear how the player is actually playing a game.
If "position of the player" is what determines whether something is a game or not, sure. As I've said elsewhere, I tend to think of RPGs more as interactive story than in a game in that sense. I don't actually want a situation where one player is clearly pulling ahead of another. I want the player positions to feel fun and enjoyable, which usually requires things to be reasonably balanced for the player, which usually requires them to be tolerably balanced at the character level.

Of course, now that I think about it some more, a good bit depends on the folks I play with. I wouldn't say we're playing on "easy mode" in general, certainly with one of the groups I often run for and play with. The tactical challenges are substantial in fights, for instance.
 
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pemerton

Legend
now that I think about it some more, a good bit depends on the folks I play with. I wouldn't say we're playing on "easy mode" in general, certainly with one of the groups I often run for and play with. The tactical challenges are substantial in fights, for instance.
When I talk about the player's position, I'm not just referring to tacticl/wargaming-type challenges.

If "position of the player" is what determines whether something is a game or not, sure. As I've said elsewhere, I tend to think of RPGs more as interactive story than in a game in that sense. I don't actually want a situation where one player is clearly pulling ahead of another. I want the player positions to feel fun and enjoyable, which usually requires things to be reasonably balanced for the player, which usually requires them to be tolerably balanced at the character level.
Player's don't necessarily have to be in competition with one another for their to be meaningful player positions.

But if a player's decisions or action declarations for his/her PC don't really change his/her position - most often, because the GM will manipukate other elements of the fiction to ensure that the consequences are the ones the GM wants - then I'm not sure it is a game. This is not just about PC death, but about any of the "story" stakes that have been referred to in this thread.
 
Ah man. After all the warm and fuzzies the last time around, @lewpuls goes full on "git off mah lawn" again. :uhoh:

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.
Maybe you missed this bit:
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.


In your example, Catan, You start out with 2 houses and 2 roads. You never lose those houses or roads. Over time you just gain more houses, or upgrade them to cities. You place more roads. You get more cards. The only loss you may suffer would be having some cards taken, but you will quickly get more. Each player doesn't worry about losing things they've gained. That's what the OP is talking about with loss aversion.

As to
"parallel competition puzzles" I think there is another term that is less uncommon "multiplayer solitaire" games. I've heard a number of reviewers use this term to describe various games including Agricola or Race for the Galaxy. There's no real direct player interaction.
 

Hussar

Legend
Maybe you missed this bit:


In your example, Catan, You start out with 2 houses and 2 roads. You never lose those houses or roads. Over time you just gain more houses, or upgrade them to cities. You place more roads. You get more cards. The only loss you may suffer would be having some cards taken, but you will quickly get more. Each player doesn't worry about losing things they've gained. That's what the OP is talking about with loss aversion.

As to
"parallel competition puzzles" I think there is another term that is less uncommon "multiplayer solitaire" games. I've heard a number of reviewers use this term to describe various games including Agricola or Race for the Galaxy. There's no real direct player interaction.
But, there are tons of games like that. Even outside of Eurogames. And, accumulating houses and roads are the path to victory, with the win condition being the one to accumulate the fastest. It's not like there isn't a win/loss condition. Just that "take away all your opponent's resources" isn't one of them.

I would also point out the strategic elements involved in road and house building in Catan. If I build a road here, you cannot. If I build a house there, you cannot. So, really, even though no one loses a house or road, you are still losing opportunities and the ability to access other resources. Saying that there is no loss in Catan isn't really all that accurate. No, you can't lose a house, but, you certainly can lose opportunities.

And, as this applies to RPG's, how can we actually apply "take away all your opponent's resources" as a win condition? Who is taking away the resources and who is winning? Sure, my PC "loses" when some NPC takes away my magic sword, but, no one actually wins. It's a meaningless loss really since it does not further anything. All it does is slow down my progress.

Let's face it, I'm going to get another magic sword to replace the one I lost. That's a given. If my PC dies, I just roll up another one and move on. Again, it's not a loss really. All that's happened is delaying forward progress.
 

Sadras

Adventurer
I'm wondering about the true identity of this [MENTION=6927497]Roland Kippenhan[/MENTION] who just magically sprung out of nowhere to answer [MENTION=22779]Hussar[/MENTION].
 
Send your players to the local hardware store so they can buy a bag of concrete and harden the *$&# up!While there, they can buy some timber and nails so they can build a bridge and get over it.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
When I talk about the player's position, I'm not just referring to tacticl/wargaming-type challenges. <...> Player's don't necessarily have to be in competition with one another for their to be meaningful player positions.
I'm not 100% sure what you're saying but in general yes, I agree that it's not just tactical, although having a character be too important tactically or otherwise having a boring but important role (e.g., healer) can often be really frustrating for players.

But if a player's decisions or action declarations for his/her PC don't really change his/her position - most often, because the GM will manipulate other elements of the fiction to ensure that the consequences are the ones the GM wants - then I'm not sure it is a game. This is not just about PC death, but about any of the "story" stakes that have been referred to in this thread.
Oh I don't think that a more narrative-oriented campaign should be consequence-free. Bad choices on the part of a player might well lead to character death and in general I do not play with easy raising of the dead, so if you're dead that's it. I've drained stats, leading to quests to get them fixed, and destroyed items. However, I do work to try to keep the narrative going as both player and, especially, DM and want the players to feel like they're meaningfully contributing to it, not getting boxed out by another player. I also want my world to make reasonable sense as a secondary reality.
 
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Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
But, there are tons of games like that. Even outside of Eurogames. And, accumulating houses and roads are the path to victory, with the win condition being the one to accumulate the fastest. It's not like there isn't a win/loss condition. Just that "take away all your opponent's resources" isn't one of them. <snip> No, you can't lose a house, but, you certainly can lose opportunities.
There's no clear direct "versus" in a Eurogame but as you say you do compete with the other players by virtue of blocking them from advancement. It's all about opportunity costs. Eurogames aren't particularly novel in this regard, either: Monopoly has very little "versus" and Clue has none.


And, as this applies to RPG's, how can we actually apply "take away all your opponent's resources" as a win condition? Who is taking away the resources and who is winning? Sure, my PC "loses" when some NPC takes away my magic sword, but, no one actually wins. It's a meaningless loss really since it does not further anything. All it does is slow down my progress.
Yeah, this is a very good point. Ultimately an RPG is a different kind of beast than many other games, unless you're playing one that has victory conditions or you consider having highly unequal PCs a win in and of itself. Mostly I find that annoying, but some people might like that.
 

DMMike

Game Masticator
Let's face it, I'm going to get another magic sword to replace the one I lost. That's a given. If my PC dies, I just roll up another one and move on. Again, it's not a loss really. All that's happened is delaying forward progress.
This, and another comment, have me thinking that some RPGs don't deserve to be called RPGs. Just calling a participant a "player" doesn't make something a game, and if there's no winning or losing, that weakens something's position as a "game" as well.

Story losses are fine and dandy, but so subjective that they're almost not worth calling "losses." Some PCs really don't care how many heads roll, and whether they're guilty or innocent. Some PCs are out to make heads roll...

If a game is just reduced to "delaying forward progress," I'd say it's more on par with Interactive Fiction or Improv. Are there any formerly-known-as-RPGs branding themselves as things like this yet?

Reining myself back in here...an RPG is unequivocally a game if it has stated win and loss conditions, or if there is competition between players. So go ahead and pull player-character death out of the game, but you'll have to fill the gap with another goal or player competition to avoid wandering into improv territory.

Wall-of-text protector:[sblock]
I played a live online game a long time ago that dropped PCs into a dungeon crawl, and anyone surviving until the end won a prize. Clear win/loss conditions there, and I had as much fun watching the game as I did playing it (I dropped in after the beginning). I didn't see any need to remove the threat of harm, because it was what made the game fun. Importantly, players began the game knowing that death was at stake, so there was no backlash when it occurred.

When I designed Modos 2, I explicitly removed player death as a game outcome, instead leaving that option up to both the GM and the player. The main reason for taking death out of the rules was inspiration from video games; people play VRPGs knowing that there's a story to pursue, and they will have the opportunity to either complete the story, or come very close to it. But to keep PCs motivated, each character has a goal to pursue written on the character sheet, and the GM has the ultimate authority to raise, lower, or eliminate stakes as desired.[/sblock]
 

MarkB

Hero
This, and another comment, have me thinking that some RPGs don't deserve to be called RPGs. Just calling a participant a "player" doesn't make something a game, and if there's no winning or losing, that weakens something's position as a "game" as well.

Story losses are fine and dandy, but so subjective that they're almost not worth calling "losses." Some PCs really don't care how many heads roll, and whether they're guilty or innocent. Some PCs are out to make heads roll...

If a game is just reduced to "delaying forward progress," I'd say it's more on par with Interactive Fiction or Improv. Are there any formerly-known-as-RPGs branding themselves as things like this yet?

Reining myself back in here...an RPG is unequivocally a game if it has stated win and loss conditions, or if there is competition between players. So go ahead and pull player-character death out of the game, but you'll have to fill the gap with another goal or player competition to avoid wandering into improv territory.
Is that really territory we want to avoid? Do we really need to be unequivocal about whether something is a game or a collaborative storytelling system?

Many of the better RPGs I've played over the years were happy to blur those lines, and I've never looked to RPGs as being a way to deliver competitive play.
 

Hussar

Legend
Yeah, I gotta go with [MENTION=40176]MarkB[/MENTION] on this one. What's the point of trying to draw boxes around whether something is a "game" or not. Like any genre discussion, it's ultimately a deep, deep dive down a dark rabbit hole.

And, I would also point out that I don't think anyone has advocated completely taking death off the table either. Just making it a bit more rare.
 

Arilyn

Hero
Yeah, I gotta go with [MENTION=40176]MarkB[/MENTION] on this one. What's the point of trying to draw boxes around whether something is a "game" or not. Like any genre discussion, it's ultimately a deep, deep dive down a dark rabbit hole.

And, I would also point out that I don't think anyone has advocated completely taking death off the table either. Just making it a bit more rare.
Yes, absolutely. Having frequent character death takes out the tension real fast, as players no longer engage in the fiction. Coming to the table with a binder full of replacements, which are casually pulled out when needed, is not adding tension to the game. Players who care only about how much killin' and lootin' they can accomplish, and don't care if the town they were supposed to be protecting gets razed to the ground are probably not experiencing much tension either. For me, potential story losses cause more tension than just trying to survive a monster and trap infested dungeon.

Lines are definitely blurring between board games, rpgs and storytelling. I agree, best not try to divy them up into discrete boxes. Doesn't actually serve a purpose beside stirring up arguments anyway.
 

DMMike

Game Masticator
Is that really territory we want to avoid? Do we really need to be unequivocal about whether something is a game or a collaborative storytelling system?
Not necessarily "we." If you like improv, be my guest.

Yeah, I gotta go with [MENTION=40176]MarkB[/MENTION] on this one. What's the point of trying to draw boxes around whether something is a "game" or not. Like any genre discussion, it's ultimately a deep, deep dive down a dark rabbit hole.

And, I would also point out that I don't think anyone has advocated completely taking death off the table either. Just making it a bit more rare.
One reason you want to know if you're talking about a game: it could be what some players are signing up for. Personally, if I sit down to an RPG session and the GM begins by saying, "welcome to my Role-Playing Improv. We're all thespians here, right?" I'll go find another session.

Also, the OP gave the impression (explicitly?) of assuming the "game" part. And suggested that, since some VRPGs provide a sort of guaranteed-win experience, that death is effectively taken off the table.

Players who care only about how much killin' and lootin' they can accomplish, and don't care if the town they were supposed to be protecting gets razed to the ground are probably not experiencing much tension either.
These players are the ones who don't care about story losses - and if they get to cycle through notebooks of character sheets, no, they probably don't experience much tension, either. But they're still players, so it would probably be helpful to have a non-blurry line between the types of games these players would like to play, and the types of games in which tension is important. It's not too helpful to simply call them all RPGs.
 

MarkB

Hero
Not necessarily "we." If you like improv, be my guest.



One reason you want to know if you're talking about a game: it could be what some players are signing up for. Personally, if I sit down to an RPG session and the GM begins by saying, "welcome to my Role-Playing Improv. We're all thespians here, right?" I'll go find another session.
"Improv" seems to be a bit of a trigger word for you. What exactly do you envision it entailing that wouldn't be a part of, for instance, any normal D&D session?
 

Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
This, and another comment, have me thinking that some RPGs don't deserve to be called RPGs. Just calling a participant a "player" doesn't make something a game, and if there's no winning or losing, that weakens something's position as a "game" as well.
So?

Story losses are fine and dandy, but so subjective that they're almost not worth calling "losses." Some PCs really don't care how many heads roll, and whether they're guilty or innocent. Some PCs are out to make heads roll...
This really depends on the player and the group. The people I play with aren't usually too happy with character deaths (especially if raising isn't easy or possible) and find story setbacks to be notable. People feel death or loss more keenly when more strongly invested than in, say, a Dungeon Crawl Classics "funnel", where expectation is that many characters will bite the dust.


Reining myself back in here...an RPG is unequivocally a game if it has stated win and loss conditions, or if there is competition between players. So go ahead and pull player-character death out of the game, but you'll have to fill the gap with another goal or player competition to avoid wandering into improv territory.
If a group wants to play in "improv territory" that's their business. I'm not entirely sure what you mean by that but I assume it's loose on rules, highly oriented on RP, and fairly low threat. I've played in games that were like that, though I tend to be happier with a few sessions like that now and again in between some hard slugging and nifty puzzles to unwind. I mean, the whole point of RPGs is that we get to "go off the board," right?
 

Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
One reason you want to know if you're talking about a game: it could be what some players are signing up for. Personally, if I sit down to an RPG session and the GM begins by saying, "welcome to my Role-Playing Improv. We're all thespians here, right?" I'll go find another session.
There seems to be a leap of logic there. The term "game" is rather loose but people like the OP and possibly you want a narrower meaning where there's competition among players. I'm with you that a really hardcore group of free-form thespians would probably get annoying to me---I like the secondary reality of the game to feel reasonably consistent---but I don't really want to play with a group of hardcore rules lawyers or power gamers, either.


Also, the OP gave the impression (explicitly?) of assuming the "game" part. And suggested that, since some VRPGs provide a sort of guaranteed-win experience, that death is effectively taken off the table.
Not necessarily true in an TTRPG. For example, I've run campaigns where I had no resurrection (in fact that's my default) but allowed for pretty generous character replacement. That meant that a character who was killed was dead, but what I didn't do was push a player whose character just died back to a starting character. Too much of that really sets the entire pace of the campaign back.
 

Arilyn

Hero
Not necessarily "we." If you like improv, be my guest.



One reason you want to know if you're talking about a game: it could be what some players are signing up for. Personally, if I sit down to an RPG session and the GM begins by saying, "welcome to my Role-Playing Improv. We're all thespians here, right?" I'll go find another session.

Also, the OP gave the impression (explicitly?) of assuming the "game" part. And suggested that, since some VRPGs provide a sort of guaranteed-win experience, that death is effectively taken off the table.



These players are the ones who don't care about story losses - and if they get to cycle through notebooks of character sheets, no, they probably don't experience much tension, either. But they're still players, so it would probably be helpful to have a non-blurry line between the types of games these players would like to play, and the types of games in which tension is important. It's not too helpful to simply call them all RPGs.
Your reaction is a little extreme. Just calling something a game doesn't say much. I mean players need a little more info, or they could wind up playing Candyland. RPGs cover a lot of territory, so of course if you are invited to join a group, you would want to know more. Nobody simply invites players to join a role playing game, without further clarification on the chosen game and style. It's especially important if you are picky about what you want from your game. I don't see how blurry lines are going to cause a hard-core gamist to accidentally get involved in "Smallville", for example.
 

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