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Raising the Stakes - Tension is a Good Thing

Tripp Robbins

"Drama is life with the dull bits cut out." -Alfred Hitchcock

Everyone loves a good story, and in a roleplaying game, players get to be part of the story. Good stories, whether on film, in a book, in life or in games, need dramatic tension. By dramatic tension I mean anything that makes our hearts beat faster, and I’d argue that love and sex may do this in life, it rarely works that way in RPGs! So I think dramatic tension comes from having something at stake. When you care about something happening, and it might not go the way you want, you experience dramatic tension.

This can come in different ways. It’s most often from danger: obviously, if you or someone you care about (be they player character or non-player character) is at risk of harm, you feel tension. But if you care about achieving your mission, you feel tension if that’s at risk too. There are other examples, but the point is that the stakes have to be high for the players to feel tension. How do we make the stakes high? There are many ways, some subtle and brilliant and others cheap and obvious. Have the party attacked by powerful creatures, and the stakes will become high (at least until the battle is over). But if that’s all you do, it’s going to get boring fast. (This is why I became bored with a number of computer "RPG" games: it becomes merely a matter of killing monsters of level X, then buying new equipment of level X+1, then killing monsters of level X+1, then buying new equipment of level X+2...They were fun for a while, then they got boring fast.)

Experienced players and DM’s know that there are other things that raise the stakes for the characters. What do the players or their characters really care about? If they’re religious, that’s an obvious thing to consider. If they are aligned strongly in one direction, that’s obvious too. Racial like/dislikes are standard fare as well. If they just feel strongly about impressing the opposite sex, that’s something for you to use. If they want please a Guild Master or a noble or anyone else, use that. If they have an attachment to a certain item, wouldn’t it be interesting for them to have it taken and have to try to recover it? And then there are the wacky things that players dream up..."I must be kind to people who wear red..." "...I must kill anyone using poison..." "...I hate anyone who uses magic..." (Those types don’t usually last too long, do they?) You get the idea: find what your players (and their characters) care about and make the most of it.

But don’t forget to look for things that come up along the way. If you notice someone enjoying (or hating) a random NPC they run into, make a mental note to bring that character around again somehow. If they have a great (or terrible) experience with a type of potion or a person from a certain place, or almost anything, make a note to use that sometime.

The tension you provide for the players should have some rhythm to it. Mix up both the types and amount of tension you create. The classic "dungeon crawl" is just a boring crawl because it’s mostly fighting one room of monsters after another. There’s a rhythm to that, but it’s too boring. Think of great movies. Sometimes tension builds slowly and predictably like a slow-moving freight train: you know where it’s going, but you can’t stop it. Other times things seem to be heading one way only to have a twist completely surprise you. And in most good stories, there are slower moments and faster moments; it may not be thrilling to go through the slower ones, but having a few of them makes the thrilling ones all the better. (Even Hitchcock used this principle in his films.) This is true not only for each session of play, but for an entire campaign. Some moments within a session are more exciting than others, and some sessions in a campaign are more exciting than others. As DM, you can make this concept work for you and your players.

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