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

MarkB

Legend
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.
By specifically restricting your interludes from containing any conflict, you are in fact imposing a rules structure upon them, however loose. It's still roleplay within a specific framework.
 
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".
Quite so, and we can easily see the modern 'Indie' RPG genre (if you can call it one in some sense) as a reaction to that. Gamers saw various kinds of issues in their play and systems like BW, FATE, Cortex+ (insert long list here), have adopted techniques intended to help regulate the application of tension, setting of stakes, doling out of consequences, and structuring of dramatic play, in various ways. In our long and involved discussions and debates about 4e we certainly saw a lot of it center on exactly what was going on there. That game seemed sort of on the edge where it falls short of actual structure, but yet it has many of the tools available. I'm exploring that space in more detail in my own game hacking.

Of course, if you have a narrowly focused game, then you can get very explicit in your tool set. You mentioned Traveller, which as a very 'old school' sort of game has a fairly broad focus, the game doesn't presuppose much beyond a genre and a default milieu. It would be easy to imagine a variation on this game where you took Social Standing and broke it off from the other 5 attributes (you could do this with EDU as well if you wanted). Now you could build a game focused around family honor and position, building up your rank in society, etc. and introduce a whole new set of rules which related character actions, either mechanical or fictional in nature, to changes in this stat. Such changes would then of course reflect back on character position, potentially in both fictional and material/mechanical terms. You could probably invent other similar stats too, so maybe Merchant characters focus on a 'Wealth' stat, scientists on EDU, etc. I guess you could have something like 'notoriety' too, though perhaps SS just needs a couple dimensions, etc.

I always thought Traveller in particular was kind of begging for this sort of evolution. The milieu easily throws up a wide variety of possible plot situations, and has latent within it a whole vast social structure. Yet the materials of the game, neither rules nor settings and adventures, took much advantage of all that. There are plot hooks and such tossed out now and then to push PCs onto some adventure scenario or other, but mostly the rules focus on things like a subsystem for making money hauling cargo and passengers, and lots of equipment lists, some oddball systems for planet generation and animal life, but very little real color. Its a weird game. I always felt like Marc Miller left most of his cards on the table.
 
By specifically restricting your interludes from containing any conflict, you are in fact imposing a rules structure upon them, however loose. It's still roleplay within a specific framework.
I think it becomes a semantic argument at a certain point. Interludes are indeed a defined game element, so there is a rule which defines them, and then that's it. I would call them a free-form part of the game in which rules are not needed. OTOH players ARE still playing their characters, they have traits they can point to in order to back up their narrative for instance. I guess certain things COULD happen if a player insisted. They could spend resources in a non-consequential way for instance (IE "I'm going to blow a significant amount of gold on having a party for 3 days.") This may even affect their fictional positioning, just not in a way that engages them into a conflict. Usually something like this will end an Interlude, propelling the PCs back into some sort of challenge situation as they attempt to grapple with whatever plot arose in the free-form part of play. Normally the GM will call for checks and possibly ask the players exactly what their characters new goal is and what resources they're putting into it. Sometimes that will be obvious from the context. Its also possible that a player can take the lead and start some sort of challenge.
 

pemerton

Legend
You mentioned Traveller, which as a very 'old school' sort of game has a fairly broad focus, the game doesn't presuppose much beyond a genre and a default milieu.

<snip>

The milieu easily throws up a wide variety of possible plot situations, and has latent within it a whole vast social structure. Yet the materials of the game, neither rules nor settings and adventures, took much advantage of all that. There are plot hooks and such tossed out now and then to push PCs onto some adventure scenario or other, but mostly the rules focus on things like a subsystem for making money hauling cargo and passengers, and lots of equipment lists, some oddball systems for planet generation and animal life, but very little real color. Its a weird game. I always felt like Marc Miller left most of his cards on the table.
We've had a bit of recent discussion about Traveller, prompted by some actual play threads I posted: first, second, third.

Personally I think that if you reread it with modern sensibilities it's not as "old school" as you'd expect. It has a lot of very tight resolution systems, which on the surface appear to be constrained/regulated only by the fiction, but when you actually play them out are mechanically self-constrained also:

* Jump travel: roll for encounter, roll for misjump, roll for drive failure, arrive at destination, roll for encounter, knock of spent fuel.

* Interstellar commerce: roll for goods available, pay for them, arrive at destination (see above sub-system), roll for brokerage service, roll for sale, increase credit tally.

* Officialdom: roll (with law level as the DC) for encounter, roll (with Admin as a bonus) to avoid close inspection, if inspected roll Admin to pass the inspection [I've adapted this from Book 7 Merchant Prince, using Admin rather than Legal skill, which seemed redundant], and/or roll for Forgery if you're using forged papers, and/or roll for Bribery if you want to deal with the officials that way.

* Vacc suit use: if a tricky manoeuvre is tried, roll to avoid difficulty, and if difficulty occurs then roll to rectify it before disaster ensue [I extended this to include other forms of protective suits].​

One thing that's missing is a rule for consequences - what happens if the officials don't like your papers? - but with our modern ways we can use "fail forward"-type resolution for that. I've also included a rule written by Andy Slack for his Expanded Universe series in early White Dwarf, where Social Standing is used to modify a check to find out what happens if you're arrested, charged and tried.

Another thing that's missing (in my view quite notably) is a good system for planetary exploration. In our second session, the PCs were driving their ATV through a barren world with a corrosive atmosphere, trying to find an enemy base. There are rules for encounters, and for break downs, but no rules with the tightness of the jump travel sub-system, or a 4e skill challenge, for actually determining if/when they get to where they're going. It was a bit unsatisfactory.

On the other hand, in our most recent session when they were fleeing that base trying to avoid being hit by fire from a ship in orbit shooting under the guidance of a forward observer, I adapted the small craft escape rules (printed in the Ship's Boat skill entry at least in the early editions of Book 1 - I think my copy is a second printing) and those worked pretty well to give a good resolution.

I've also found the "oddball systems" for generating PCs and worlds paint an implicit but interesting picture of the milieu. There are nobles, who galavant about in pleasure yachts; there is also a steady market for low passages (as indicated via the commerce rules), despite the 1-in-12 to 1-in-6 chance of death for an ordinary healthy individual (depending on the quality of onboard medical care). And many worlds have crappy atmospheres and only modest populations. The impression I get from all this is that the world of Classic Traveller is one with a population living mostly in poor conditions, ready to take pretty desparate chances to survive or try and get ahead, while a small elite extracts wealth and leisure time from the system. (Ie it's basically the modern world outside of parts of Australasia, North America and West and Central Europe!) A very non-Star Wars and non-Star Trek implied setting, it seems to me.

I think this game is very much worth playing, more-or-less as written but bringing some of those modern sensibilities to bear. I think it's a much more reliable generator of good RPG experiences than D&D 5e, for instance; and mechanically less demanding on both players and GM than 4e, although probably requiring them to work harder to get the fiction going due to the lack of such a clear default setting and starting situation. (The discussions of the game in the late 70s and early 80s show that this latter issue was really a very big difficulty people had with the game.)

I think it's a pity that, from the mid-80s on, Traveller seems to have been captured mostly by the GURPS-type crowd, and so has generated a mixture of a more "universal" approach which dilutes many of the tight subsystems into a generic and largely unworkable universal resolution system (I'm thinking MegaTraveller here) while (as best I can tell) pushing actual play into yet another variant on a 2nd ed AD&D-style GM driven scenario-focused game, where the job of the mechanics is mostly to provide a bit of colour that gets incorporated into the GM's narration.

It would be easy to imagine a variation on this game where you took Social Standing and broke it off from the other 5 attributes (you could do this with EDU as well if you wanted). Now you could build a game focused around family honor and position, building up your rank in society, etc. and introduce a whole new set of rules which related character actions, either mechanical or fictional in nature, to changes in this stat. Such changes would then of course reflect back on character position, potentially in both fictional and material/mechanical terms. You could probably invent other similar stats too, so maybe Merchant characters focus on a 'Wealth' stat, scientists on EDU, etc. I guess you could have something like 'notoriety' too, though perhaps SS just needs a couple dimensions, etc.

I always thought Traveller in particular was kind of begging for this sort of evolution.
That would be drifting towards a sci-fi version of Burning Wheel or similar (that already has a Circles stat which is something like notoriety/social standing, and a Resources stat). Could definitely be interesting, but I think also pretty different from Traveller in its original form. (Which I guess would be the point.)
 
We've had a bit of recent discussion about Traveller, prompted by some actual play threads I posted: first, second, third.

Personally I think that if you reread it with modern sensibilities it's not as "old school" as you'd expect. It has a lot of very tight resolution systems, which on the surface appear to be constrained/regulated only by the fiction, but when you actually play them out are mechanically self-constrained also:

* Jump travel: roll for encounter, roll for misjump, roll for drive failure, arrive at destination, roll for encounter, knock of spent fuel.

* Interstellar commerce: roll for goods available, pay for them, arrive at destination (see above sub-system), roll for brokerage service, roll for sale, increase credit tally.

* Officialdom: roll (with law level as the DC) for encounter, roll (with Admin as a bonus) to avoid close inspection, if inspected roll Admin to pass the inspection [I've adapted this from Book 7 Merchant Prince, using Admin rather than Legal skill, which seemed redundant], and/or roll for Forgery if you're using forged papers, and/or roll for Bribery if you want to deal with the officials that way.

* Vacc suit use: if a tricky manoeuvre is tried, roll to avoid difficulty, and if difficulty occurs then roll to rectify it before disaster ensue [I extended this to include other forms of protective suits].​

One thing that's missing is a rule for consequences - what happens if the officials don't like your papers? - but with our modern ways we can use "fail forward"-type resolution for that. I've also included a rule written by Andy Slack for his Expanded Universe series in early White Dwarf, where Social Standing is used to modify a check to find out what happens if you're arrested, charged and tried.

Another thing that's missing (in my view quite notably) is a good system for planetary exploration. In our second session, the PCs were driving their ATV through a barren world with a corrosive atmosphere, trying to find an enemy base. There are rules for encounters, and for break downs, but no rules with the tightness of the jump travel sub-system, or a 4e skill challenge, for actually determining if/when they get to where they're going. It was a bit unsatisfactory.

On the other hand, in our most recent session when they were fleeing that base trying to avoid being hit by fire from a ship in orbit shooting under the guidance of a forward observer, I adapted the small craft escape rules (printed in the Ship's Boat skill entry at least in the early editions of Book 1 - I think my copy is a second printing) and those worked pretty well to give a good resolution.

I've also found the "oddball systems" for generating PCs and worlds paint an implicit but interesting picture of the milieu. There are nobles, who galavant about in pleasure yachts; there is also a steady market for low passages (as indicated via the commerce rules), despite the 1-in-12 to 1-in-6 chance of death for an ordinary healthy individual (depending on the quality of onboard medical care). And many worlds have crappy atmospheres and only modest populations. The impression I get from all this is that the world of Classic Traveller is one with a population living mostly in poor conditions, ready to take pretty desparate chances to survive or try and get ahead, while a small elite extracts wealth and leisure time from the system. (Ie it's basically the modern world outside of parts of Australasia, North America and West and Central Europe!) A very non-Star Wars and non-Star Trek implied setting, it seems to me.

I think this game is very much worth playing, more-or-less as written but bringing some of those modern sensibilities to bear. I think it's a much more reliable generator of good RPG experiences than D&D 5e, for instance; and mechanically less demanding on both players and GM than 4e, although probably requiring them to work harder to get the fiction going due to the lack of such a clear default setting and starting situation. (The discussions of the game in the late 70s and early 80s show that this latter issue was really a very big difficulty people had with the game.)

I think it's a pity that, from the mid-80s on, Traveller seems to have been captured mostly by the GURPS-type crowd, and so has generated a mixture of a more "universal" approach which dilutes many of the tight subsystems into a generic and largely unworkable universal resolution system (I'm thinking MegaTraveller here) while (as best I can tell) pushing actual play into yet another variant on a 2nd ed AD&D-style GM driven scenario-focused game, where the job of the mechanics is mostly to provide a bit of colour that gets incorporated into the GM's narration.

That would be drifting towards a sci-fi version of Burning Wheel or similar (that already has a Circles stat which is something like notoriety/social standing, and a Resources stat). Could definitely be interesting, but I think also pretty different from Traveller in its original form. (Which I guess would be the point.)
I guess it might be moving a LITTLE outside the bounds of the thread, but this game is one where there certainly are POSSIBLE ways to generate tension, and some that work pretty reliably for some definitions of it. Its a weird game though in the sense that your characters don't really progress, and don't really have any defined reasons to either stick together or to actually adventure. It tends to become either very DM driven, or very sandboxy sort of just drift around trading and raiding. I mean, think about it, you've got some SS11 guy who's basically a Count or something (one of your elites, though I don't ENTIRELY share your view of the Traveller milieu). WHY is he out grubbing around playing supernumerary on a 200 ton Free Trader? How, given the number of pirates, misjumps, bad cargo runs, etc, does ANYONE actually make a living in such a way anyhow? The 'scouts give away their almost worthless surplus ships and let them be used as a sort of unofficial intelligence network' kinda ALMOST made sense, except the ship is worth like CR10 million and even if you sell it for 10 cents on the credit you can still go retire.

The system is 'tight', but it isn't tight in a way that actually drives forward story very well! Which leads to problems with tension, because death is utterly meaningless in Traveller. There's no progression, and IME little accumulation of serious wealth that would even substitute for that (though that seems to be the idea of the game, such as there is one). Players tended to actually like to die and play the 'create a character' subgame again, because doing THAT 100 times was the most reliable way to 'upgrade' your character!!!! There was NO system at all for things that were OBVIOUS like, who is my family? I got this SS 11 but I don't even have a list of suggested names or family histories, etc. The Empire milieu of official Traveller didn't really help there AT ALL. It was filled with sector maps and planet attribute strings, and not much else.

There wasn't even a way to find out what planet you came from, so without a planet, a family, etc. all characters are rootless and lack any motivation such as "save the planet!" or anything like that. It was such a frustrating game for that reason. Lots of really good solid mechanics, a perfectly fine combat system, lots of add-on supplement systems for equipment out the gazoo, and a fairly interesting interstellar travel system, but without anything at the heart of it. There is just literally no reason given or even suggested to care one bit about a character in this game.

Obviously GMs and players CAN rectify all of this, but oddly no supplements or articles really seemed to move much in that direction. Eventually variant systems and settings were devised that seemed to want to fill that void, but IME none of them really ever overcame the core limitations of the original presentation. Many times I've considered revving up a Traveller campaign, and done it a couple times, but if I ever do it again I will utterly ditch all of those parts of the game and build something different on the core. Once you decide to go THAT far then there's little reason not to just go ahead and use something like Cortex+ instead!
 

pemerton

Legend
Its a weird game though in the sense that your characters don't really progress, and don't really have any defined reasons to either stick together or to actually adventure. It tends to become either very DM driven, or very sandboxy sort of just drift around trading and raiding. I mean, think about it, you've got some SS11 guy who's basically a Count or something (one of your elites, though I don't ENTIRELY share your view of the Traveller milieu). WHY is he out grubbing around playing supernumerary on a 200 ton Free Trader? How, given the number of pirates, misjumps, bad cargo runs, etc, does ANYONE actually make a living in such a way anyhow? The 'scouts give away their almost worthless surplus ships and let them be used as a sort of unofficial intelligence network' kinda ALMOST made sense, except the ship is worth like CR10 million and even if you sell it for 10 cents on the credit you can still go retire.

The system is 'tight', but it isn't tight in a way that actually drives forward story very well! Which leads to problems with tension, because death is utterly meaningless in Traveller. There's no progression, and IME little accumulation of serious wealth that would even substitute for that (though that seems to be the idea of the game, such as there is one). Players tended to actually like to die and play the 'create a character' subgame again, because doing THAT 100 times was the most reliable way to 'upgrade' your character!!!! There was NO system at all for things that were OBVIOUS like, who is my family? I got this SS 11 but I don't even have a list of suggested names or family histories, etc. The Empire milieu of official Traveller didn't really help there AT ALL. It was filled with sector maps and planet attribute strings, and not much else.

There wasn't even a way to find out what planet you came from, so without a planet, a family, etc. all characters are rootless and lack any motivation such as "save the planet!" or anything like that.

<snip>

There is just literally no reason given or even suggested to care one bit about a character in this game.

Obviously GMs and players CAN rectify all of this, but oddly no supplements or articles really seemed to move much in that direction.
I get where you're coming from, but I think that - with modern sensibilities and approaches brought to bear - a lot of what you're pointing to can be overcome without requiring very much work (eg no more work than would be required to solve the same issues in D&D 5e).

I think the starting points are (i) the PC-gen system, and leaning heavily on that to establish the framework for a PC backstory, and (ii) the patron subsystem, and leaning heavily on that to establish immediate momentum in the ingame situation.

I agree that the game doesn't actively promote this, but it does offfer these supporting frameworks. One departure I've made from the rules as written to facilitate play is to drop the idea of a pre-generated starmap. Instead, I'm generating and/or dropping in worlds as needed to make things go. (More detail on this in the actual play threads I linked to.)

(I'm also ignoring the published GDW setting, other than the basic idea that there's an Imperium with nobles, a navy, a marine corps, and a scout service. )
 
I get where you're coming from, but I think that - with modern sensibilities and approaches brought to bear - a lot of what you're pointing to can be overcome without requiring very much work (eg no more work than would be required to solve the same issues in D&D 5e).

I think the starting points are (i) the PC-gen system, and leaning heavily on that to establish the framework for a PC backstory, and (ii) the patron subsystem, and leaning heavily on that to establish immediate momentum in the ingame situation.

I agree that the game doesn't actively promote this, but it does offfer these supporting frameworks. One departure I've made from the rules as written to facilitate play is to drop the idea of a pre-generated starmap. Instead, I'm generating and/or dropping in worlds as needed to make things go. (More detail on this in the actual play threads I linked to.)

(I'm also ignoring the published GDW setting, other than the basic idea that there's an Imperium with nobles, a navy, a marine corps, and a scout service. )
Yeah, well, the heyday of my Traveller play was before any of the Imperium setting stuff was even put out there. It was somewhat implicit in the core rules, but we always stuck to just building star maps using the random rules as-needed and inventing interstellar culture/politics to go with it. You had the basis of a 'There is a noble class' in the SS rules, though IIRC even those don't really try to pin down exactly what SS means in a generic way, you have to read the actual 'Spinward Marches' and TAS stuff to start getting the actual details on that.

This did make us free to extrapolate details in a more interesting way than Spinward Marches does (which IMHO is a pretty 'dead' sort of setting as produced). The patron system COULD work, but the PCs have little push to access it, and it doesn't just come up by itself, unless you engineer it. The PC-gen system OTOH does nothing for you. It gives you a totally generic outline of your character's backstory, but void of any personal details.

What I would recommend is making the players run through the PC-gen phase TOGETHER. So do something like generate you stats, make up some sort of campaign-appropriate background system that ties the PCs to specific locations, families, organizations, etc. (something like 4e's backgrounds maybe would work, but random checks could be used, which is more Traveller-esque). THEN put the PCs through the chargen system, and flesh out the details as you go. When the Marine character gets sent to 'special ops' and gets injured, then the scout character rescued him, etc. Now you have some character bonds and a true backstory that works. At that point I agree, it starts to become a more fun game. I think the in-play systems are still a bit lackluster, but they aren't a bad starting point.

Once you do all this, then I think it becomes pretty easy to create motivation, tension, threat, etc. Progression is still an issue in Traveller though, characters simply don't change over time! I guess if you live long enough you age, but that's unlikely in a milieu where starships fire nuclear tipped missiles and petawatt laser beams at each other on a regular basis... You can introduce training and a sort of 'XP', which were fairly common additions to the game, but they were certainly always an afterthought. Just by nature of the chargen system your character is effectively 'fully formed' at game start.
 

In Our Store!

Advertisement

Advertisement

Top