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
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.
Yes, I definitely agree, particularly given that the term "game" is being used by the OP in a particular (if not entirely defined) way to involve things like player position and competition. While that's one definition of the term, by no means is it the only one. A broader definition involves rules and structure, not necessarily direct competition.

I guess I think that terms like "gamist", "simulationist", and "narrativist" do useful work here. If I'm allocating my 100 points I tend to fall down roughly in a pattern of G 25, S 40, N 35, or something like that anyway. Other people I've played with are different, but my feeling is that one needs to have a good feel for a prospective group and likely compatibilities and frictions. A group that's close to N 100 is probably the "screw the rules, let's just RP everything!" group. I probably wouldn't enjoy playing with them and vice versa. Let them be and find a different group. (Of course, chances are good nowadays they'll be LARPers, so that's easy enough.)
 

Derren

Adventurer
Personally I think RPGs with a heavy focus on combat but no chance of death are boring. Or maybe I should say shallow.
Its simply easy mode with no chance to really lose. Oh sure they can fail in one story mission but there is always another one or even a way to recover. And most importantly they still get XP so it was a win.

Thats my problem with progression in D&D. Its entirely done by XP especially now with optional magical items. And not only do you always get some XP no matter what you do, you also can't lose it anymore (Any XP loss mechanic from the past has been deemed unfun which contributed to the easy mode gaming).
I rather prefer an advancment scheme which relies on equipment or status. Those are physical values which can be given and taken away so when the PCs screw up there is an actual danger of loss (other than death). Also it is visible in the game and thus can be referenced. In D&D there is no in game way to know if the fighter you are facing is a level 1 pushover or lvl 30 demigod. If equipment is a large part of advancement like for example in Traveller you can judge with in game information if you should mess with that enemy or not.
Downside is that in the default D&D murderhobo style you can advance quite quickly by killing things and taking their stuff. So its more commonly used in modern or scifi settings where taking stuff isnt all that easy and there are more ways to break stuff you do not want the PCs to have yet.
 
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DMMike

Game Masticator
I'm asking what you think it is within the context of playing an RPG. I've played plenty of RP-heavy systems, and they've never looked like that video.
Improv, in the context of playing an RPG, is role-playing without tension, threats, or risk of character harm/loss. In other words, it's what the OP suggested might happen if you take character death off the table. There's no (player) tension in improv, because every response is correct.

On a more mechanical level, you could say that an RPG is still a game (not improv) as long as it has win/loss conditions in the form of die rolling, high-card drawing, etc., regardless of what the win/loss entails in the story. Die rolling floats a few boats.
 

MarkB

Hero
Improv, in the context of playing an RPG, is role-playing without tension, threats, or risk of character harm/loss. In other words, it's what the OP suggested might happen if you take character death off the table. There's no (player) tension in improv, because every response is correct.

On a more mechanical level, you could say that an RPG is still a game (not improv) as long as it has win/loss conditions in the form of die rolling, high-card drawing, etc., regardless of what the win/loss entails in the story. Die rolling floats a few boats.
Okay, so now you're defining when improv occurs - the circumstances under which it happens. Basically, any time the characters are not in a life-or-death situation - when they're in the tavern at the end of a long adventuring day, or taking a rest at the campfire, or speaking to any NPC who isn't likely to slit their throat if they say the wrong thing, then what's happening is improv, rather than gameplay.

But what is it? What makes those moments of the game different, worse, less rewarding than all the other moments of the game? Are you truly never engaged with the game-world when death is not on the line?
 

Hussar

Legend
In general, these genre discussions follow the same pattern. "I like X, I don't like Y, so, my chosen genre definition will include X and exclude Y". IOW, people's genre definitions are a reflection of their own personal preferences and not grounded in anything remotely approaching an objective viewpoint.

It's simply tribalism.

I would differ with [MENTION=2518]Derren[/MENTION] in one way. While I agree that combat without any risk of dying is probably boring, this simply doesn't apply to D&D. While 5e is a lot more forgiving than, say, OD&D, it's still quite possible to whack a PC.

The question becomes, what odds? What odds of the PC getting killed are high enough to be fun without being so high that the game becomes frustrating for the players?
 

DMMike

Game Masticator
Okay, so now you're defining when improv occurs
No, I was defining this:
But what is it?
For some reason, you heard "in-game" in my response, but my definition was referring to OOC/metagame play.
What makes those moments of the game different, worse, less rewarding than all the other moments of the game? Are you truly never engaged with the game-world when death is not on the line?
If you're referring to the tavern, campfire, or non-hostile NPC, each of those scenes is different from the other moments of the game because there's no risk of loss. It's where the game becomes a story told by the GM...and the players.
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
It's pretty easy to see if you watch some of Wil Wheaton's Titansgrave. Each session has a good bit of improv, and there's a clear portion when death/loss/harm is at stake and the rules kick in. So I guess lewpuls is asking: how would you run an RPG for players who don't want their characters to die? And since the PCs in Titansgrave never have a real chance of death (that I could see), Wil might have an answer for him.
 

MarkB

Hero
It's pretty easy to see if you watch some of Wil Wheaton's Titansgrave. Each session has a good bit of improv, and there's a clear portion when death/loss/harm is at stake and the rules kick in. So I guess lewpuls is asking: how would you run an RPG for players who don't want their characters to die? And since the PCs in Titansgrave never have a real chance of death (that I could see), Wil might have an answer for him.
I just don't see the separation that you're describing, either in Titansgrave or in the average home game. People don't stop playing their characters when combat kicks in, and there are still rules mediating the success or failure of their actions even when the stakes are lowered outside combat. Combat tends to be more tightly structured, but whether in or out of combat, it's all just people playing their characters within the structure of a game's ruleset.
 

pemerton

Legend
I've been playing RPGs for a long time - over 30 years - but I haven't played that many games. But even across my current active campaigns - D&D 4e, Burning Wheel, Cortex+ (both MHRP and Fantasy Hack) and Classic Traveller - there are counterpoints to nearly all the confident assertions on this thread about how RPGing has to be. And it's not as if any of these games is especially radical in its play or its design.

Personally I think RPGs with a heavy focus on combat but no chance of death are boring. Or maybe I should say shallow.
Its simply easy mode with no chance to really lose. Oh sure they can fail in one story mission but there is always another one or even a way to recover. And most importantly they still get XP so it was a win.
I don't think anyone has advocated completely taking death off the table either. Just making it a bit more rare.
Cortex+, in both the versions I'm playing, tends to be combat-heavy (either superhero combat or fantasy combat); and it has virtually no chance of PC death.

That doesn't mean there are no stakes. In our fantasy game, one session had, as it's concluding scene, the PCs confronting dark elves at the bottom of a dungeon they had been trapped in by a crypt thing. One PC was knocked out by the drow; two others defeated the drow and rescued their companion. The fourth PC, meanwhile, had charmed one of the drow and was led by her to the treasure chamber, which he was able to loot to his heart's content.

At the start of the next session, the PCs were in two groups: the three who had had to trudge their way out of the dungeon and back towards civilisation (that all happened off-screen); and the one who had been shown the way out by the drow, and had been living on the fat of the land for a month or so and still had a big purse full of gold pieces.

The failure of the PCs to actually pursue the quest they had been sent on also meant that the end of days was getting closer.

In mechanical terms, the PC who had successfully looted the drow had an additional, persistent asset at the start of the game which didn't have to be paid for; and the PCs' failure to make progress on their quest meant that the doom pool started with larger dice than it otherwise would have done.

There you have a clear example of how a game can involve story losses without PC death being what is at stake; and how suffering those story losses can produce a definite change in the mechanical game state.

A different example comes from Burning Wheel. As long as a player has an unspent persona point, s/he can guarantee that his/her PC won't die in combat (by spending the point to ensure survival of a mortal wound). Yet combat in Burning Wheel can be very dramatic: I'm thinking, for instance, of the series of combats in my game which resulted in the PC mage's brother being killed as an act of vengeance by another character before the PC could try and save him from demonic possession. That was not a mechanical change in the game state, but it was a very significant change in the fictional situation.

(I've also seen a player spend that last remaining persona point to try and ensure victory in combat, because the player (and the PC) is committed to achieving the goal that is at stake in the combat.)

I'm not 100% sure what you're saying

<snip>

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.
the term "game" is being used by the OP in a particular (if not entirely defined) way to involve things like player position and competition. While that's one definition of the term, by no means is it the only one. A broader definition involves rules and structure, not necessarily direct competition.
I hope the above examples give a better sense of what I'm saying. I think the concept of a player having a "position" in the game is independent of whether the stakes are PC death; and is independent of whether the game involves direct competition between the players; and is independent of whether that position is expressed in mechanical as well as in-fiction terms, or is purely an in-fiction matter.

Some ways in which a game can not have real consequences for player positions: the GM takes steps to make sure that events that befall the PCs don't matter to the ultimate direction of the fiction (I have seen this in modules, for instance, that suggest if the PCs fail to rescue the messenger and receive the message, then they might find a note on the assassin instead); or the GM takes steps to make sure that the decisions, and especially the failures, of the PCs don't make any difference to the state of the campaign world (I have seen this in modules which suggest that if the PCs fail at the ultimate challenge, some other GM-controlled entity or force suddenly inserts itself to solve the problem). I personally thinks this makes for very weak RPGing.

If player positions are going to be defined in mostly in-fiction terms, then I think the fiction has to be quite compelling and engaging. I feel that a light-hearted game like Cortex+ heroic probably doesn't generate fiction that is compelling enough on its own; but (as I commented on in the example of play above) that system also invovles mechanical consequences for PC failure, like the doom pool stepping up.

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."

<snip>

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.
Improv, in the context of playing an RPG, is role-playing without tension, threats, or risk of character harm/loss. In other words, it's what the OP suggested might happen if you take character death off the table. There's no (player) tension in improv, because every response is correct.
Okay, so now you're defining when improv occurs - the circumstances under which it happens. Basically, any time the characters are not in a life-or-death situation - when they're in the tavern at the end of a long adventuring day, or taking a rest at the campfire, or speaking to any NPC who isn't likely to slit their throat if they say the wrong thing, then what's happening is improv, rather than gameplay.

But what is it? What makes those moments of the game different, worse, less rewarding than all the other moments of the game? Are you truly never engaged with the game-world when death is not on the line?
If you're referring to the tavern, campfire, or non-hostile NPC, each of those scenes is different from the other moments of the game because there's no risk of loss. It's where the game becomes a story told by the GM...and the players.
The idea that something being "subjective" means it's not a loss is very strange. In the real world, different people have different goals and standards for what counts as success in their lives - but that doesn't mean there's no such thing as doing well or badly in one's life!

Of the systems I've mentioned above, Burning Wheel has a formal system for establishing PC goals in the course of play; Cortex+ heroic has something a little bit similar in its XP system; Traveller has a formal system for generating patrons, but there is no requirement within the game that players take their PCs commitments to their patrons seriously; and 4e doesn't have a formal system for PC goals at all. The existence of these systems is independent of whether or not "story losses" can occur, and matter to the players.

The campaign my group has been playing most recently is Classic Traveller. This has many NPC interactions where there is little likelihood of the PCs' throats being slit; but the game still has resolution mechanics for such situations (reaction rolls; Admin skill; Forgery skill; Bribery skill; etc). And players can improve or weaken their positions, and make a broader difference to the fiction, by how those situations resolve in light of their action declarations for their PCs.

Having frequent character death takes out the tension real fast, as players no longer engage in the fiction.
I think that depends. In classic D&D play of the sort that Gygax describes in his PHB (under the heading "Successful Adventures"), and that Moldvay Basic is all about, frequent character death is to be expected, but this doesn't mean the players don't engage the fiction. Engaging the fiction, in these games, means mapping the dungeon as the GM describes it, trying to make sense of the puzzles (of layout; of secret doors; of cursed or bonus items and dungeon features; etc). But obviously you're not going to get an epic or dramatic story out of that sort of RPGing!

If the engagement of the fiction that you want is more along the dramatic story line of things, then you need to adopt different techniques from what Gygax and Moldvay recommend. But I still think that meaningful player positions matter to this. If the GM is going to manipulate the fiction to ensure that player decisions and the outcomes of resolution ultimately make no difference to the resulting fiction, I think that players will be less likely to engage, as under those circumstances nothing turns on their engagement.

In D&D there is no in game way to know if the fighter you are facing is a level 1 pushover or lvl 30 demigod.
That might be true in your game. It's not generally true in mine. Establishing meaningful stakes, making story losses possible, etc, all depend on the players knowing (more-or-less, within table-understood parameters, etc) what is going on in the ingame situation.
 

Derren

Adventurer
Cortex+, in both the versions I'm playing, tends to be combat-heavy (either superhero combat or fantasy combat); and it has virtually no chance of PC death.

That doesn't mean there are no stakes. In our fantasy game, one session had, as it's concluding scene, the PCs confronting dark elves at the bottom of a dungeon they had been trapped in by a crypt thing. One PC was knocked out by the drow; two others defeated the drow and rescued their companion. The fourth PC, meanwhile, had charmed one of the drow and was led by her to the treasure chamber, which he was able to loot to his heart's content.

At the start of the next session, the PCs were in two groups: the three who had had to trudge their way out of the dungeon and back towards civilisation (that all happened off-screen); and the one who had been shown the way out by the drow, and had been living on the fat of the land for a month or so and still had a big purse full of gold pieces.

The failure of the PCs to actually pursue the quest they had been sent on also meant that the end of days was getting closer.

In mechanical terms, the PC who had successfully looted the drow had an additional, persistent asset at the start of the game which didn't have to be paid for; and the PCs' failure to make progress on their quest meant that the doom pool started with larger dice than it otherwise would have done.

There you have a clear example of how a game can involve story losses without PC death being what is at stake; and how suffering those story losses can produce a definite change in the mechanical game state.
What loss? There was no loss. They got the loot and XP (if the system has XP) and their failure only meant more chances for loot and XP in the future. And with no chance if PC death the doom pool doesnt matter. So the PCs are more likely to fail the next adventure because if it, but what does that do? A even larger doom pool?
That might be true in your game. It's not generally true in mine. Establishing meaningful stakes, making story losses possible, etc, all depend on the players knowing (more-or-less, within table-understood parameters, etc) what is going on in the ingame situation.
You might read out loud the complete statblock of any enemy the PCs face. I try to keep such metagame information out of the session.
Inly that in games like D&D the power of a creature depends nearly 100% on those metagame information and is not visible or explainable in game.
 

pemerton

Legend
You might read out loud the complete statblock of any enemy the PCs face. I try to keep such metagame information out of the session.
Inly that in games like D&D the power of a creature depends nearly 100% on those metagame information and is not visible or explainable in game.
It's easily able to be explained in game.

Back in AD&D days, most divine beings had CHA scores that generated Awe (or Horror) effects. In 4e, (i) the GM describes things (an aura, a being's armour and weapons, its bearing and demeanour (contrast a +2 Diplomacy bonus with a +20 Diplomacy bonus), etc) that make it clear (more-or-less) who the being is; and (ii) the players can declare skill checks to learn about the backstory of beings they meet (which, in the context of demigods, might mean recognising them, and knowing their legendary exploits).

What loss? There was no loss. They got the loot and XP (if the system has XP) and their failure only meant more chances for loot and XP in the future.
The PCs didn't get the loot. One PC got the loot. The other PCs got nothing.

XP in MHRP are earned by meeting character milestones. The loot-gaining PC earned XP for that (as he hit a milestone), but the other PCs didn't (especially the one whose milestones tie in directly to achieving their quest).

And a higher doom pool makes things harder in mechanical terms (which became clear in that following session, as the PCs failed to save a village from a priest of the Ragnarok and his marauding horde).

If your criterion for a loss in an RPG is the players don't get to play again, then I refer you to my first post upthread. That's an unrealistic expectation in a social game where participants purchase the materials that will let them engage in an ongoing recreational activity. (Similarly, a person who buys a fishing rod, and then doesn't catch any fish his/her first time trying, isn't going to never use that gear again.)

Once you allow that the players are going to continue RPGing, then either they can start a new capmaign with new PCs, or they can continue this campaign and see if the PCs can try and recover from their failures so far. The first is not more "loss"-y than the second; both involve RPGing, but the second also involves engaging with a fiction in which the PCs failures (to date) loom relatively large.

And with no chance if PC death the doom pool doesnt matter. So the PCs are more likely to fail the next adventure because if it, but what does that do? A even larger doom pool?
Eventually, if the PCs don't succeed the Ragnarok will come. In mechanical terms, that will probably involve (i) spending 2d12 from the doom pool to end a scene in which the PCs are on the ropes, (ii) in a context where the stakes of the scene are that the Ragnarok arrives.

The larger the doom pool at the start of a scene, the more likely it is to escalate, more quickly, to 2d12.
 
S

Sunseeker

Guest
Once you allow that the players are going to continue RPGing, then either they can start a new capmaign with new PCs, or they can continue this campaign and see if the PCs can try and recover from their failures so far. The first is not more "loss"-y than the second; both involve RPGing, but the second also involves engaging with a fiction in which the PCs failures (to date) loom relatively large.

Eventually, if the PCs don't succeed the Ragnarok will come. In mechanical terms, that will probably involve (i) spending 2d12 from the doom pool to end a scene in which the PCs are on the ropes, (ii) in a context where the stakes of the scene are that the Ragnarok arrives.

The larger the doom pool at the start of a scene, the more likely it is to escalate, more quickly, to 2d12.
Unsurprisingly, I agree with pemerton once again.

As long as you accept that Joe the Player will be allowed to continue gaming with the group as soon as his PC dies, then you've essentially removed death as a tangible threat anyway. What does Joe lose? Investment? Okay sure, we can do that just fine without killing his character. Be it negative levels, loss of prestige, or other resources within the game. I've NEVER seen a table who boots dead players out and I don't suspect there actually are any, so all the player has really lost is time and investment. There are innumerable other ways to take that from a player without death.

Frankly, I think PC death is a fairly weak tool. Especially when it's stuff like "Oh I took an arrow to the knee...".

And presumably pemerton, "Rangarok" means PCs will likely die, 'cause ya know, it's Ragnarok. It's not that death is off the table, it's just only on the table when it has meaningful value.
 
I think its possible to have very different values for what 'PC Death' means to the players depending on the sort of game you are playing. As examples:

Pemerton's style of evolving stakes game which he is discussing above doesn't really care about PC death. PCs COULD die, and that might or might not change the stakes in some fashion, depending on the details of the narrative. I think shidaku is right, death isn't 'off the table', it is simply part and parcel of the 'what do the players care about?' of the game.

EGG's style of 'skilled play' OTOH is focused heavily on character progression in a purely mechanical sense. It is generally lighter on plot and more designed around player skill where the measure of that is character level. You die, you go back to the start in pretty much classic arcade game like fashion. Gygax did invent ways to recover, resurrection and such, as well as an emphasis on troupe play, which usually allows for a player to assume the persona of some other henchman or whatnot. So maybe you suffer a setback, now you're a level 4 cleric instead of a level 8 wizard, but you got some loots and you can keep playing, maybe even find the body of your 'master' and get him rezzed. Death definitely is something to avoid, pretty much THE thing to avoid, in this kind of game, though of course players in practice often didn't care that much if they died or not.

You really can't discuss this sort of topic without first establishing what sort of a game you're playing.
 

pemerton

Legend
And presumably pemerton, "Rangarok" means PCs will likely die, 'cause ya know, it's Ragnarok. It's not that death is off the table, it's just only on the table when it has meaningful value.
I guess that's right - I hadn't really thought of it in the clear terms you frame it, because if the Ragnarok comes then that's the end of that particualr campaign, and the death of the PCs in the end of the world is in some sense a secondary consideration, that would be narrated as part of the larger situation rather than mechanically played out.

You really can't discuss this sort of topic without first establishing what sort of a game you're playing.
I agree with you about the "skilled play" type of game, including the comparison to arcade games with "if your PC dies you go back to the start".

I don't entirely agree with the bit I've quoted, though - an alternative is to discuss this sort of topic by comparing different sorts of games, including the ways that different sorts of games establish and resolve tension, threats and progression.
 
S

Sunseeker

Guest
I guess that's right - I hadn't really thought of it in the clear terms you frame it, because if the Ragnarok comes then that's the end of that particualr campaign, and the death of the PCs in the end of the world is in some sense a secondary consideration, that would be narrated as part of the larger situation rather than mechanically played out.
Right. I've done that in a few games where I take fairly strong measures to make sure players aren't going to die from encounters unless there's a sort of narrative finality available.

EX: in part of my Dragon Campaign my players are tasked with saving The Dreamer. It is rather heavily borrowed from Fantasia with the "enemy" being The Nothing, you can't really fight it, and if you fail to save The Dreamer, well...the world ends. Most of the enemies are about slowing you down, tying you up and generally getting in the players way, but not outrightly killing them (in part because the players should be level 10+ by now and death is only a setback).

To disagree with Abdual a bit, this is Lewis Pulsipher writing the article. We know what sort of game he's talking about. So while yes certainly we should be clear when we are talking, we certainly know what the other side is.
 
I don't entirely agree with the bit I've quoted, though - an alternative is to discuss this sort of topic by comparing different sorts of games, including the ways that different sorts of games establish and resolve tension, threats and progression.
Well, OK, you can try to do that. It always seemed like in the past when we had that discussion there was always some people that just didn't seem to 'get' that there actually wasn't just one way to play RPGs, lol. I guess that sort of thing is just the price of online discussion sometimes. I tend to focus on what interests ME of course. So, 'skilled play' for example doesn't matter to me that much. Maybe I'm that guy! :)

The other side of this is there's often not a CLEAR style of play in force. There is a style, that which is being played, but if its not articulated very clearly then people can be unsure of what they're doing. So maybe the GM tries making things 'dangerous' in the theory that this is 'challenging', but if the players are engaged with the story of how the fate of their home town plays out, then this DM pressure won't work as expected.
 

pemerton

Legend
It always seemed like in the past when we had that discussion there was always some people that just didn't seem to 'get' that there actually wasn't just one way to play RPGs

<snip>

The other side of this is there's often not a CLEAR style of play in force. There is a style, that which is being played, but if its not articulated very clearly then people can be unsure of what they're doing. So maybe the GM tries making things 'dangerous' in the theory that this is 'challenging', but if the players are engaged with the story of how the fate of their home town plays out, then this DM pressure won't work as expected.
Of the two bits I've quoted, the first can lead to the second - or maybe the second is one manifestation of the first. A GM just thinks there's this "thing", RPGing, and if you use this technique (eg step up the mechanical danger) then automatically you'll get tension/pressure. And then it doesn't work (because the players don't care, or don't respond; because the GM then uses some GM force/manipulation to stop a "bad die roll" ruining "the plot"; etc).

One key to understanding these misfires is to break out of that mindset that RPGing is a single "thing".
 
I just don't see the separation that you're describing, either in Titansgrave or in the average home game. People don't stop playing their characters when combat kicks in, and there are still rules mediating the success or failure of their actions even when the stakes are lowered outside combat. Combat tends to be more tightly structured, but whether in or out of combat, it's all just people playing their characters within the structure of a game's ruleset.
See, this is interesting to me, because I wrote my own sytem a while back (yeah, amateur game designers, you can roll your eyes ;) and that's exactly what it does. Interludes explicitly contain no rules, and also no conflict. They serve as transitions or exposition, and can be montage-like scenes, flashbacks, vignettes, whatever you want to call them. Stakes can be set within these scenes, but as soon as a question of conflict arises, when gain or loss is possible, then a challenge is declared and rules govern what follows.
 

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