Thursday, 29 December 2011

Rising Tensions (Part 1) - Jenga

The Alexadrian was talking about Dread, a horror RPG with a unique mechanic. The resolution system is a Jenga tower. You want to do something tough, you pull out a brick. The tougher the action, the more bricks you need to pull out to succeed. As the game went on, the tension steadily increased as the Jenga tower became more unstable and every pull became more difficult. If the tower fell, you failed; this usually resulted in your character dying a particularly horrible death. For an analogy to a horror movie, that's great.

The game had issues, though, after the tower fell. In the case of Dread, the tower is reset to its starting position. The tension is reset to 0 and it takes a long time before the game starts making your heart race again.

While I can't speak authoritatively on Dread, tension and pacing are factors to be concerned about in your typical D&D game. And in 4E, you need to worry about those more than ever before.

Graphing Tension
Let's take a look at how tension plays out in a Jenga-ish type resolution system.

In this case, tension starts off low, slowly mounts and then becomes a high stakes game where every pull has life ending consequences. The tower falls and the tension plummets back to the beginning.

Over the course of an adventure, this pattern repeats itself. For Dread, a game is to last for a number of tower falls, say 3. In this case, your adventure tension looks like this.

The most tense encounters of D&D, in my experience, have been the ones which come right down to the wire. Where you're sitting on that last hit point and the beholder rolls a natural 1 on his disintegration ray. Or half the party is on the ground, you're out of healing, but your last swing takes the dragon's head off. Everyone takes a sigh of relief, high fives are handed out and the barbarian player screams, "In your face!!" and moons the DM. (your gaming tables may vary)

Such an encounter often involves a big bad bruiser who fights on and blasts away at the characters. The characters pull out all their tricks and then, when those are exhausted, starts thinking up new tricks to use. The tension mounts until a sudden breakthrough with the death of the monster and then tension deflates. It's like a Jenga encounter, except the tension is racheted up right at the start of the encounter

While such encounters are great, they have to be used sparingly. One, players become immune to tension if they are constantly exposed to it. (or they have a nervous breakdown) Two, there are only so many times you can expect the beholder to roll a natural 1. If every encounter came down to the wire, character mortality would skyrocket. And third, pants removal of a player should never happen more than once a gaming session.

Instead, D&D uses a more forgiving encounter system for the generic encounter. Side A lines up on one side, side B lines up on the other side, and they fight. At first, both sides are attacking vigorously, but soon the players start overwhelming their opponents and they are slowly picked off one by one. There is a little tension at the beginning of the combat, generally when the party is caught off guard or trying to adapt to the situation. As the combat continues, the opponents become less effective as their numbers are depleted. At the end, the combat is a mop up situation, where you are rolling dice waiting for the last minions to fall. This kind of encounter generally looks like this.

D&D adventures have always used resource depletion as a means to challenge the players.  In early versions, the resources were provisions and light sources, hit points and spells. In 4E, the resources are hit points, healing surges and daily powers. Over the course of an adventure, the encounters are balanced so that you deplete just enough resources so that the final encounter you face that day will be truly difficult. So over the course of a typical 4 encounter adventure, the tension looks like this.

Over time though, people have realized that it's easier to "reset the Jenga Tower" after every encounter. In each encounter, you don't horde your resources, you use them without reserve. And after the encounter, you take an extended rest and recover all those resources. This is commonly referred to as "the 15 minute workday". This way, players avoid the risk of hitting that fourth encounter with their resources depleted. But besides avoiding risk, they also avoid the tension. And tension is fun.

There are ways to try and prevent the 15 minute workday. But even if your players don't take a 15 minute workday, there is rarely any tension until that final encounter when resources are depleted. All those first encounters are little more than speed bumps. If an encounter ever looks even a little risky, players can use daily powers to suddenly shift the balance of combat. After all, it's better to make sure you get through this encounter in good shape then to risk not using your daily powers at all and being too hurt to carry on afterward.

What You Don't Know Can't Hurt You - Or Scare You
The issue with a resource depletion system is in most adventures, you don't know what's going to happen. Yeah, that sounds silly as I type it, too. I mean, of course you don't know what's going to happen. The game gets pretty boring if you knew what was coming all the time. But if you have no idea of what you're going to face, how many encounters and how difficult they're going to be, there is no way to judge in any encounter if the resources depleted were significant or not. To know if you should be worried or if you should be feeling good about yourself.

Lair Assault and Encounters make you consider this. In Lair Assault, you know you have one huge encounter where every little scratch, nick and power depleted could spell your doom. The Encounters series let you know how many encounters you need to progress through before you get to an extended rest. But are they combat encounters or skill challenges? How hard will the encounter before the extended rest be? You can't judge how far behind or far ahead you are compared to what the adventure writer intended.

When you finally reach the final encounter, very few people will be able to track back through the previous encounters how the tension was increased. Few people are going to make the connection between: fireballing a group of goblins 6 hours ago at the dungeon entrance - to facing web based spiders that you couldn't burn and had to use movement powers to escape from webs - to being outflanked by some bugbears and losing a few extra healing surges - to fighting the final boss monster and at that time, finally feeling stressed because you ran out of healing surges half way through he fight. Up until that boss monster, the players were never feeling any real danger. They were never in any real danger. And unless they know for certain that those encounters were awaiting them, all of their decisions in the earlier encounters were entirely valid. There is no way for them to judge at any given time what the effect of their actions would be, or even if there would be an effect.

In order for the tension to build in an adventure, there needs to be a much more visible line between the actions players take and the effect it has over the course of the adventure.

Back to the Old Grindstone

One final issue that encounters generally have in 4E is what is referred to as "the grind". The tail end of the combat where the result of the combat is known, but there are a few stubborn orcs who want to keep swinging until you make a strong argument they should stop. These arguments start with "de" and follow up with "capitation". Big words for orcs, but they understand pretty quickly.

While this part of the combat is not exciting, it's necessary as part of a system that uses resource depletion as a driving factor. Those last few hits the orcs can score will pile up over the course of the adventure and, theoretically, cause more tension in the final encounter.

To get around this, some people cut the encounter short and have everyone tick off an extra healing surge to account for the final battle damage. Maybe you'll use bigger monsters and have them run away en masse at some point instead of stupidly fighting to the death. This is a better option, in my opinion, thanks to the Peak/End rule.

The peak/end rule, in my own crappy paraphrasing, states that a player's enjoyment in any encounter (or session, adventure, etc.) is based on two things- the feeling at the high point of the encounter and the feeling at the end of the encounter. You take the average of those two and that's how well thought of the encounter will be in memory. So that grind where the tension and the fun slowly ebb away, really brings down the overall fun of the encounter. If the grind had been at the start of the encounter, it would actually come across better. As the encounter is starting to get boring, saying, "OK, that's probably enough, let's just use up a healing surge and call it a day" doesn't make the ending of the encounter improve. First, we've already waited until the encounter started to drag. Second, there's very little closure in the combat. One second you're fighting, the next you're shrugging your shoulders, marking off a healing surge and erasing the battlemap.

After watching every single season of 24, each season generally lacked closure. Whatever ticking time bomb the writers had planned was always set to go off at the 23:59:59. And when the tension rose and the bomb was deactivated at the last second, there was no time to do anything but see Jack Bauer carted off to the hospital/prison/torture chamber/CTU without seeing a little bit of the happy times (or not so happy times) that came after.

To close off an encounter, you need closure. And it needs to happen in a timely manner- while spirits are still high.

Creating Tension
Now I have a set of goals I want to accomplish when designing my encounters and adventures:
  • Tension should increase gradually to a crescendo
  • After the crescendo, the tension should be released suddenly and quickly
  • The end of the encounter needs a satisfying and timely closure
  • There needs to be a clear path between player decisions and final outcomes across multiple encounters
  • Risk needs to be present and real to create tension, but not necessarily fatal risk. You need to walk on a tightwire ... but only over a short drop.
  • Resource depletion in current 4E is not enough to provide lasting tension
And with that, I'll leave the method for accomplishing these tasks until next time. Oooh. Cliffhanger. That's always good for increasing tension.

1 comment:

  1. Is this your theory for "tension" in your marriage, too? Slowly annoying your wife for weeks, building up to the one HUGE event where she is massively ticked off and then miraculously, you are the DREAM husband and can do no wrong. All has to be forgiven, because you are just so damn perfect?

    I see some similiarities to real life here? Ha, ha! Love you! Great analogies!