When are secrets and tension actually ... well, secret and tense?

edited June 2007 in Story Games
I was talking to one of my gaming buddies about a mechanic I was considering and our conversation drifted into the buy-in that players need with some situations in gaming.

The mechanic in question was a Faustian bargain style affair for my MI:666 game. The GM hands a player a sealed envelope and tells them that in it, there is a secret that will unlock the campaign for them. Say, the name of the politician that Belial has possessed or some such. Lucifer will allow them to open the envelope when they have pleased him - and to do that, they have to do the tasks written on the envelope. Each task is more and more insidious and depraved with the final one being an absolute nasty (so, for example, if they have identified that their greatest love is their daughter, they might have to condemn their daughters soul to serve Lucifer but in return, they save mankind from certain annihilation). It needed work as an idea but I liked the way it played with the themes of the game and it upped the ante in terms of sacrifice and potential drama.

My player just said that no-one would ever take the envelope because in the end I would have to unveil the secret anyway because if I didn't how would they, the heroes, save the day. Because they would save the day because thats what heroes do. I couldn't argue with him because he is right. Theres no question that the spies who found the plans of the Death Star would get them to Admiral Akbar because if they didn't, the weak spot isn't there to shoot.

We talked around this and we actually discovered a load of other scenarios where players must actively avoid 'metagaming' to provide tension. How many times have threats been thrown at the players and they aren't really threats but the players treat them as such? It's almost like a consensual game of chicken between the players and the GM?!

Is this something that people have come across? This idea of players simply disregarding a threat because it is say, the first one of the game and the likelihood of the GM busting out a TPK on a group of finely honed and designed characters is so minimal as to be worthless? Is this a sympton of a sort of 'passive railroading'? You know, the sort where it doesn't matter what direction the players go in, they will always arrive at the same city and the map will change accordingly?

I'm intrigued!



  • The obvious way is to say "No, I'm perfectly willing to doom the world to annihilation and end the game." But that is not always the best way.

    In most action movies, an example I've mentioned before, the tension is not "real" tension. On some level nobody in the audience believes James Bond will fail and the world will be destroyed or the bad guy will escape with the goods. But the characters in the fiction believe it's a possibility and we're willing to go along with it. Similarly, even if all the players in your game know you won't ever really destroy the world, if they're willing to have their characters act like they might, they can get the same kind of enjoyment as they might out of a movie in which there's never any real uncertainty about the outcome.
  • As Jason said, tension doesn't have to come from not knowing whether the heroes are going to win or not. Tension can come from not knowing how much it is going to cost them to win. Sure, James Bond beats the bad guy but his love interest dies in the process. You know Conan is going to be king but what's it going to cost him to get the throne?

    I'd make the secret in the envelope attractive because it diverts personal loss at the expense of loss to someone else. I'd make defeating the enemy without the secret involve more personal loss while being more altruistic in terms of others. So? Which do they do? Just make sure the choice is really a choice. If one option is obviously better than the other then it really isn't a choice.

  • Thanks for that - yeah, after I posted this it sort of struck me that in the end the answer is about two routes. Route A, the envelope has to have a cost and Route B has to have a higher cost, a more difficult path. They can take the 'easy' way out, at a cost to themselves personally or they can battle along Route B talking the flak that comes that way and always knowing that the less arduous Route A exists. Same ending, different routes, different costs and decisions.

    The idea of making the bargain on the envelope effect someone else is just wickedness in the extreme. I love it to bits!

    Thanks for helping me straighten out those thought processes!

  • It's not an easy subject, and it's very big. I might do an exegesis on the "fake tension" of a lot of genres in the style of my mystery fan posts at some point...
  • In this specific case, I'd make sure the PCs aren't the only ones interested in the envelope. If you don't want to do something, the fact that someone else _does_ can either be disheartening (Elminster) or fantastic (Belloq). Of course the world's going to be saved, but are you going to let someone else do it if it means damning them? How about if it means they get big say in what the New World Order looks like?

    In the broadest sense, this is the exact same problem that comes up every time the GM calls for the dice to be rolled. The roll is never really about success or failure, but about two interesting outcomes, one of which may be less desirable than another. When that is true, players know they can fail, and it will suck, but it will not *frustrate* them or leave them at dead ends. By extension, the question of whether or not the GM needs to fudge becomes moot. Scaled up the the plot level, it needs not be about success or failure, but two possible outcomes. This means that, much like a skill roll should not be "roll climb or fall and die" a plot level question should not have finality. If the choices are between success and the earth flying into the sun, success is fairly predictable. But if failure means a superflu gets released on the world, suddenly the outcomes are success or Stephen King's "The Stand". And either one of those works.

    Better yet, as with the individual rolls, this communicates your seriousness to your players. If the consequences are interesting, then they'll believe you're willing to let it happen _because you are_, and that's pretty magnificent.

    Taking a little extra time to think about the failure option, and how it's interesting, is a great practice, but it can be tough to make a habit of it. But the payoff the next time you realize that a certain outcome makes your game suck and you fix it before the dice hit the table? Priceless.

    -Rob D.

    PS - Ok, the escalating price thing is good, but consider it with a grain of salt. John Wick likes to point to a problem with Star Wars about the "price" of evil being that you get to be _more awesome_. The Jedi Council wants you to be good, but if you kill enough people you get to shoot *lightning* from your hands. Who the hell wants to be good? Which is all to say, be careful that your prices actually correspond with your needs. :)
  • Don't have the consequences of not opening the envelope be the destruction of the world. Have it, instead, be the slow decline that drags the world farther and farther down an endless slope of depravity and war. The heroes can very much afford to not save the day a few times in a row, if they don't mind tripling the homeless population, encouraging genocide in a few countries they might never go to, and repealing date rape laws.
  • Posted By: vodkashokMy player just said that no-one would ever take the envelope because in the end I would have to unveil the secret anyway because if I didn't how would they, the heroes, save the day. Because they would save the day because thats what heroes do. I couldn't argue with him because he is right.
    ...you play a different game than I do!

    Actually, that's not quite true. In fact I play a lot of games where the PCs always win -- but those games aren't about he PCs winning, they're about other things. For instance, it's a rare town that actually beats the Dogs that walk into it. One way or another, the Dogs are almost certainly going to lay down judgement and ride out of that town into the sunset. The game isn't about the Dogs getting their way, it's about the Dogs figuring out what 'their way' is, and what lengths they're willing to go to get it.

    On the other hand, I play a lot of games where the PCs are not guaranteed victory -- and I actually, really and truly mean that. These are fun games, too, but it's understood from the start that the players can lose, and usually lose bad. Curiously, those games usually aren't about the PCs winning or losing, either.
  • What's wrong with real jeopardy? I think I would be comfortable with everything going up in a great ball of fire.

    My friends once had a D&D campaign where everything came down to the final battle with the Dark Lord. They played it out to the end as the last castle fell and evil won the day and the world was covered in darkness and blight.

    The next campaign started in that same world, now a barren wasteland, a generation later. The first thing the players ran into was a herd of carnivorous cows.
  • There's nothing at all "wrong" with it....it's just that some people don't like it, just like they don't like sad (or happy) endings in movies.
  • Screw happy or unhappy, I don't want a boring ending. Everything goes up in a big ball of fire _can_ be a cool ending, but more likely it's just a larger effects budget for a TPK and end of the game.

    The problem comes when I am setting up a choice between an in game consequence (The good guys win) and an out of game consequence (The game ends). This sort of choice is going to be skewed by a lot of other factors. To fix it, the choices need to be within the same context.

    Which is to say, if this is going to be our last session, no matter what, then sure - it can go either way. That's tense and dramatic. But if it's not? Then the whole issue has just gotten muddled something fierce.

    -Rob D.
  • Thats sort of the way that I have played it in the past - up until the last session the players are pretty much going to get the rub of the green. However, in the last session all bets are off. This has, in the past, been pretty much what the players have said they have wanted and the possible change to that (in my OP) is what precipitated the bluff-calling statements.

    I'd just like to add, I really appreciate some of the stuff thats coming out in this thread - it's making me think long and hard about how I construct 'true' choices for my players and not dramatic fait accomplie. Thanks to everyone for that.

  • edited June 2007
    If it's a given in your game that "the heroes will win", then the game is not about the heroes winning.

    Givens aren't where a game is at.

    Questions are. [*]

    So, given that your heroes will win -- what are the questions that the game is actually about?

    A favorite (as Rob implies) is "how much will it cost you to win?"

    But I'm sure there are others.

    [*] Edit: Tangentially, this is why Schizonauts does away with setting stakes -- since that's a predetermination of givens, in a way -- and instead makes conflict resolution all about posing a question that needs an answer.
  • Posted By: iago
    A favorite (as Rob implies) is "how much will it cost you to win?" But I'm sure there are others.
    My personal favorite is, "What does this show about who you are?"
  • Well said, Fred.

    Josh nails it above, too. If a player is playing with his own self-esteem on the line - that is, if his character loses, he loses - then it's damn hard not to "metagame." Rather, what's really hard is to have dramatic play side-by-side with this sort of player-challenge-based play.

    I have a scenario I run at cons called "The Ending Season" and it usually ends with a TPK or similar. It's designed to do so. The question isn't whether or not the characters are going to survive, it's how they decide to go out. Drama isn't at all about winning or losing, but the choices made between the wins and loses, and what that says about the characters.

  • edited June 2007
    Posted By: Rob DonoghueThe problem comes when I am setting up a choice between an in game consequence (The good guys win) and an out of game consequence (The game ends). This sort of choice is going to be skewed by a lot of other factors. To fix it, the choices need to be within the same context.
    I definitely agree. "The good guys win" v. "Game ends" is always bad stakes. Also, everything going up in a ball of flame was more of a metaphor. It doesn't really have to be the end as long as the players are cool with playing out their defeat or playing in a world in which the good guys have been defeated.

    My point is that if the GM sets up a choice, that choice needs to have consequences. If the GM sets up a choice between humanity ending and opening an envelope, then they should be comfortable with either outcome before they put that choice in their game.

    One thought I had: I've seen games where victory or defeat is uncertain and games where victory is impossible and defeat certain (Polaris comes to mind). Are there any games in which, by design, Victory is certain and defeat impossible? In such a game, what would be the question that the game is about?
  • Games that are designed for genres where victory is certain.

    I've run many of these games, typically comic book or action-mysteries.

    Usually the game is "about" the twists and turns in the path between the initial setup and the ending, and the exciting fights, chases, and/or mysteries along the way. Celebration of the genre is also a big thrill. Is that what you're asking?
  • Well, possibly. In these games (as opposed to the genre) is the character's victory certain and do the players know that they can not fail?

    If the game starts out with "Okay, you are going to win. This game is about how you look while your winning." Then yes.
  • Certain portions of The Great Pendragon Campaign strike me as a 'Victory is certain, have fun' scenario. We're up to 505 at the moment and we know we only have to tough it out for another 5 years and the Big Guy arrives (in his little boy form...) and things become a lot more predictable. Indeed, one of our players has said that sometimes the game can feel like being in a historical documentary because the outcomes of the battles, invasions etc. are predetermined.

    However, to counteract that, the game is set up so that our personal and military decisions have real consequences. If we leave Sarum undefended and raid north, land-grabbing as we go, we come back to decimated manors and a very angry Countess. However we know that if we DON'T do that, we will be surrounded and crushed by our enemies and have little tribute to pay them off with. So whilst 'victory' is assured (and ironically, victory for the first phase knights almost certainly involves going down in a blaze of Glory at Badon), the game becomes very much about surviving the journey there and the legacy that you leave your children following that journey.

  • noclue - Yes, I tell players up front when I'm working on a game where eventual victory is assured. Actually games where the ending is bad are not acceptable to a significant number of my group, so we rarely play any other sort of game.
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