Monday, July 30, 2007

Harry Potter and the Lost Art of Making Players Cry

OK, I just finished reading that new Harry Potter book. Don't worry, I'm not going to include any spoilers here. Just a general observation, I was rather amazed with J. K. Rowling's marketing skills. By publicly stating that some important characters would die, she changed the very way I read the story.

Of course, it helped that she has already killed off several important characters. She was clearly willing to follow through on her threats. As a result, any time the action heated up, I thought "This could be it. This could be the end."

She had effectively stripped away the protagonists plot invulnerability. She also managed to emotionally involve me, and make me actively worry about the characters. And, I'm sure, the story was better as a result.

Joss Whedon pulled a similar stunt in Serenity. By killing off Wash, he raised the stake for the final battle with the Reavers. He sent a clear message--if Wash could die, then anyone could die. This definitely cranked the tension to 11.

So, how does this apply to RPGs? I would like to bring this kind of added tension to the table. The naive answer is easy, kill a character or two. If characters can die, and if they players know that characters might die, then conflicts will have an added level of tension.

But, wait just one second. Different players have widely different views on PC death. Some people hate having their characters die. They spend a lot of time creating their characters, they invest a lot of emotion and time into their stories. They don't want them snuffed out by a few bad die rolls. Killing their character may well ruin the game for them, or cause them to stop playing entirely.

Also, if character death is common, then the players will begin treating their characters as disposable placeholders. They will hesitate to invest a lot of time and energy into any one character, since that effort will likely be wasted.

So, to optimize the power of PC deaths, they must be possible but rare. Also, PC deaths should represent important moments of high drama--not just the result of a bad roll. Clearly, this isn't easy to pull off. So, what's the solution? I'm frankly not sure. Sometimes you can mimic PC death by killing off an important NPC. Sometimes you can plot out a character's dramatic demise with the player's permission and input. But neither of these feel like adequate solutions. They address corner cases and exceptions, not the real heart of the matter.

So, let's turn the situation on its head for a second. Many independent games use a stake-setting mechanic. During any conflict, each player explicitly states what they are willing to risk before any rolls are made. While I understand the reason behind this--for example, it helps reduce miscommunication and misunderstandings--I always find myself bristling at these rules. In part, I think they adds too much meta-talk, which distracts me from the story. Mostly, however, I feel that it leaches the excitement out of the conflict.

If I can set the stakes, then I can limit the amount I am willing to risk. I know, before I pick up the dice, that I will never face unacceptable resolution. However, real drama comes from stepping over the lines. From moving past what is safe and what is comfortable. And uncertainty always heightens tension.

I don't need to risk my character's life every time the dice fall from my fingers, but when I look across the table at the GM, and I have no idea what might happen--that's when real fear sets in. My pulse races; my palms sweat; I shake the dice nervously, afraid to let them go. That's exactly the kind of energy I want in my games.



Blogger Alasdair said...

Actually, one of the things which bugs me a lot is when my PC is nearly-certainly dead, and the GM backs off in a way that doesn't seem compelling.

Death can be a risk, but it can also be a reward.

What I've found in terms of building the tension is that the games which do it have a more general acceptance of actions having consequences. So it becomes an in-game situation of "does this action have a potential consequence of death." Knowing that a GM isn't tweaking the world for your convenience can build that sensation.

11:01 PM  
Blogger Rich said...

Thanks for your comments.

I agree. That can definitely be a big problem. In general, it's bad when the GMs flinch.

Thinking about this more, I think this is mostly a problem for tactically oriented games. Games like D&D have strict rules that unambiguously define when and how a character dies. That means, if you take a 200 hit point blow, and you only have 20 hit points left, you're going to die. Or the GM's going to have to break the rules.

The rules represent the laws of physics in the gaming world. They provide a common understanding of how the world works. And it's really bad to have fundamental laws of physics fading in and out at the GM's whim.

This also limits the GM's storytelling ability. As a GM in a tactical game, I'm afraid of throwing really tough bad guys at the characters--after all, they might break someone.

Also, tactical combats eat up a lot of game time--especially against tough opponents. It's often a very poor ratio between the amount of time spent, and the distance the scene moves the story.

Many narrative games have a looser definition of what "win the conflict" means. This often gives the GM the freedom to narrate less fatal (and often more interesting) outcomes.

They could incapacitate and capture the PCs. They could maim the PC and leave him for dead. They could kill someone the PC cares for, and make good their escape before the PC can respond.

There are some things worse than death.

More importantly, narrative games move the emphasis from the outcome of the fight (are we going to win?), to the consequences of the fight (how does this battle affect the larger story arc?).

The older I get, the more I prefer a highly narrative style game.

Of course, if the players know that the good guys always win, and that their players are essentially invulnerable--well, that can't be good for the story either.


11:49 PM  

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