Tuesday, August 23, 2011


Simply put, Suspense is not knowing what is going to happen in a situation where the results are important to the observers.

For Gamesmaster’s running RPGs there is always a wish to create a sense of suspense for the Players. For Players the suspense is an enjoyable aspect of the game. So I’d like to talk a little bit about techniques that can be used to create suspense in the game.

First, we should note that there are two avenues of suspense. One is related to the mechanics of the game and affects the Player. The other is related to the story of the game and affects the Player’s Character.

In the first case suspense is usually inherent in the act of rolling the dice. That kind of suspense is mechanics-related. To mitigate the chances of failure the Players often try to maximize their chances of success by doing things like maximizing their Character’s stats, but also can be things like strategically or tactically positioning the party members to maximize combat advantage, or using the appropriate weapons or mystic powers, as well as such mundane things as purchasing the right equipment for the adventure, which might entail previously having re-conned the location, or having done prior research. A well organized and effective approach to a situation can provide the necessary bonuses to make the difference between “high chance of fail” and “a good chance to succeed”. And so we find that the mechanical aspect of suspense is related to preparation in some way. When Players work hard at thinking through their approach to a situation, then their investment in time and forethought can add considerably to the suspense they feel when rolling the dice. Encouraging Players to think through the issues, possibly through some vague but intriguing comments by NPCs, can add to the mechanical suspense the Players feel when the dice get rolled.

Another aspect of Player oriented suspense is what I think of as The Player Character Death Effect… knowing that in any given combat the Player’s Character can get killed. This is a tricky one. The Gamesmaster has to negotiate a delicate balance in relation to Player Character death. How do you provide enough evidence in the game that the Player Characters may indeed get killed, but not cause the Players to feel too much anxiety at the possibility of their Character’s death? I had an experience like this in my game. One of my Players, having had her Character killed once (although she came back to life after an adventure through the underworld), became averse to taking what she considered “unnecessary risks”. This actually lead to her leaving behind an important and well beloved NPC who was trapped in a spider web because she could not tell if the mumblings coming from the large lump of webs were from a friend, or a monster. So with great hesitation she finally decided to back away and not take the chance. She didn’t want to risk being killed again. So, that’s one aspect of what makes The Player Character Death Effect a challenge for Gamesmasters. Another problem is that some Players take high umbrage at the death of their Characters and leave the game. A related problem I ran into once was that one of my Players was so crushed by the fact his Character died that he broke down and started crying. On the one hand it certainly proved that he had an emotional attachment to his Character, which is laudable, but also proved that some Players have a very hard time letting go of beloved Characters for this very reason. So these are issues that have potential to disrupt, if not actually ruin a game.

And yet, the solution that some Gamesmasters adopt, which is to spare the Player Characters from The Player Character Death Effect by fudging the rules, or modifying the dice rolls when they have resulted in a Player Character death, can also be problematic. Without the credible threat of Player Character death, the Players may conclude that their Characters have some sort of Gamesmaster initiated God-Mode turned on, and start behaving badly. I’ve seen that before. Knowing that the Gamesmaster won’t let them die, some Players take advantage. They begin to take chances that would be absurd under any other circumstance. It kind of ruins the sport of the game when this happens. The other side of that same coin is that Players may become disinterested in the game. If you know you can go into any battle with any creature, and not die, then the die rolls are going to ultimately not be very suspenseful. After a while, just like being allowed to eat as much candy and ice cream as you possibly can, it becomes un-fun.

I think overall the most important feedback that I’ve gotten from Players is that if they must die, the wish they could die well. That means that they prefer that they die in some climactic way that exemplifies their heroic nature, and not because of some dumb minor incident during which they just “rolled bad” and died. That’s understandable. Unfortunately, that’s difficult to engineer in a game where Players take chances when they choose, and roll the dice to determine the outcome. One bit of advice in this regard that I give my players is “maximize your chances of success, and try to minimize dangerous actions that have little importance to your Character’s goals”. Other than that the Gamesmaster cannot really do much more, other than to try to guide the adventures along pathways that have importance to the Players, and minimize the dangers associated with non-critical paths in the game world.

So the GM has to negotiate Player Character death pretty carefully. That means keeping an eye on balance of forces in every combat situation, as well as other situations, such as the effectiveness of poisonous traps, the results of dangerous non-combat tasks, etc. Depending on the rules system you use to run your game this can be either relatively easy or rather hard (if not impossible) to do. Yet as Gamesmaster you have to be cognizant of the issue just the same. Personally, I choose to use a rules-light system that gives me a reasonably good chance of being able to estimate chances of survival in any dangerous situation, and so I can adjust values relatively easily to hopefully mitigate the odds of Player Character death.

Another aspect of suspense is much less about mechanics, but just as important. It is the Plot-Suspense that accrues when the Character’s themselves are involved in suspenseful activities that are not related to die rolling. For example, the resolution of a mystery, where the suspense is in figuring out Who-Done-It, and the possibility of danger until the mystery is resolved. This is much more of an art than a science, but the Gamemasters who manage this aspect well provide yet another form of suspense for the Players that can be very entertaining. I’m thinking of one example from my game where the Players were carrying around a monster inside one of them, and it did not become apparent until the end, when the last remaining Player Character was running along the path and suddenly it dawned on her what had happened, just as her companion behind her was transforming into the monster. She turned to look, and I have to say the look on her face at that moment was priceless!

There are some thoughts on some aspects of suspense in the game. I’d be curios to hear your reactions.
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